Statutes in Court

The History and Theory of Statutory Interpretation

Statutes in Court

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 4 figures Published: June 1999

Law > Legal Theory, Politics > Political Science

How do judges determine the meaning of laws? The extent to which judges should exercise their discretion in interpreting legislation has been a contentious issue throughout American history, involving questions about the balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary. In Statutes in Court William D. Popkin provides an indispensable survey of the history of American statutory interpretation and then offers his own theory of “ordinary judging” that defines the proper scope of judicial discretion.
Popkin begins by discussing the British origins of statutory interpretation in this country. He then maps the evolving conceptions of the judicial role in the United States from Revolutionary times through the twentieth century before presenting his “ordinary judging” theory—one that asks the judge to use modest judicial discretion to assist the legislature in implementing good government. Claiming that theory cannot account for everything a judge does when determining statutory meaning or writing an opinion, Popkin shows how judges who strive to be conscientious in interpreting the law are often hampered by the lack of both a framework in which to fit their approach and a well-understood common vocabulary to explain what they do. Statutes in Court fills that gap.
This work will be valuable to anyone concerned about the judicial role in the interpretation of laws—from judiciary officials and law professors to legal historians and political scientists.


“[A] well-researched, thorough description and analysis of the theory and practice of judicial interpretation of statutes. . . . Popkin has written an excellent book that frees jurisprudence from the confines of simplistic assertions about the relationship between politics and law. His analysis is based on a clear understanding of how language actually works, rather than on naive assumptions about judicial protection of fundamental rights or the rigid premises of modern textualism. Readers will learn a great deal from this book about the history, theory, and dynamic practice of statutory interpretation.” — Timothy O. Lenz , Perspectives on Political Science

“William Popkin intrepidly analyzes the topics that his title identifies. The first is enormous, and the second is intellectually complex. . . . [J]udges and commentators on statutory interpretation ought to learn as much as possible about how legislative drafters conduct their extremely difficult art. . . . [T]his is a useful book. . . .” — Jack Stark , Wisconsin Lawyer

Statutes in Court is a valuable contribution. Its historical overview is unique in the modern literature on statutory interpretation. This is a well-written, clearly substantial piece of work.” — Mark Tushnet, Georgetown University

“Popkin breaks new ground in his historical discussion of English practices, reflecting on this history with the benefit of the more modern insights on legislation and legislatures.” — Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt University School of Law


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William D. Popkin is Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law at Indiana University and author of Materials on Legislation: Political Language and the Political Process.

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Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2328-0
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