Missing the Mark: An Overlooked Statute Redefines the Debate over Statutory Interpretation

Blatt, William S. | October 11, 2009

Scholars have long debated the merits of various theories for interpreting statutes. On one side, textualists argue for close adherence to text. On the other side are those who interpret statutes by reference to legislative intent. At the center of this debate is the seminal 1891 Supreme Court case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States. That case considered whether the Alien Contract Labor Act, which prohibited the importation of “labor or service of any kind,” barred a church from hiring an English minister. Writing for the Court, Justice Brewer consciously departed from statutory language and exempted the hiring. Textualist and intentionalist interpreters alike regard Holy Trinity as a crucial test case for assessing theories of interpretation. Months before the Supreme Court’s decision in Holy Trinity, however, Congress specifically excluded ministers from the Act. Remarkably, the debate gives scant attention to this exclusion. The failure to consider such a highly relevant statute is no isolated mistake. Rather, it reflects a larger blind spot in our thinking about statutory interpretation. Continuing in three parts, this Essay explores the impact of the exclusion on that thinking.