The Importance of Other Statutes in Statutory Interpretation

In one of the few decisions it has handed down thus far this term, Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Supreme Court relies heavily on a statutory interpretation technique that tends to confound students, but that forms a staple in its interpretive methodology:  References to/extrapolation from other statutes and prior Supreme Court cases interpreting them.  Union Pacific raises the question whether, under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a party’s alleged failure to exhaust certain grievance procedures before proceeding to arbitration in front of a panel of National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) members is a jurisdictional claim that may be raised sua sponte by the arbitration panel or an ordinary claim that must be raised by the parties in their papers.

The RLA requires employees and railroads to exhaust the grievance procedures specified in their collective bargaining agreement before resorting to arbitration. As the final pre-arbitration grievance procedure, the Act directs parties to attempt settlement “in conference” between designated representatives of the railroad and the employee. In Union Pacific, the parties engaged in at least two pre-arbitration conferences; however, the employees neglected to include proof that conferencing had taken place in the materials ultimately submitted to the arbitrators. The railroad did not raise this lack of record evidence, but one of the industry representatives on the panel did — and despite the employees’  after-the-fact submission of evidence that the conferences did occur, the arbitration panel dismissed the employees’ arbitration petitions, concluding that it lacked authority to assume jurisdiction over the employees’ claims given the employees’ failure to submit proof-of-conferencing prior to the closing of the record.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision handed down last week, ruled that the arbitration panel was wrong to dismiss the employees’ arbitration petition on jurisdictional grounds. In so doing, it relied extensively on its own prior constructions of what it deemed to be analogous statutory provisions in Title VII and the Bankruptcy Code. First, it noted that a Title VII provision requiring complainants to file a timely charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity commission (EEOC) before proceeding to court had been ruled non-jurisdictional (and therefore forfeitable if not timely raised by a party). “[C]onferencing is surely no more ‘jurisdictional’ than is the presuit resort to the EEOC held forfeitable in Zipes.” Similarly, the Court referenced its recent decision ruling non-jurisdictional (and forfeitable) the Title VII provision exempting employers who engage fewer than 15 employees. And last, the Court cited a prior ruling that a Chapter 7 trustee’s limited time to object to the debtor’s discharge is a claim-processing, rather than a jurisdictional, matter. Finally, the Court distinguished prior cases holding that time limitations for filing notices of appeal are jurisdictional.

What is the Court doing when it engages in such United States Code-searching (and caselaw-searching) for analogous federal statutes and cases interpreting those statutes? Some might argue that it is looking for a way to justify an interpretation it has chosen for other (i.e., ideological) reasons. In my view, however, this explanation is incomplete. It seems to me that in canvassing the United States Code (and its own caselaw) for analogous statutory provisions (and its prior interpretations of those provisions), the Court is looking for a way to maintain consistency across the United States Code. That is, it is seeking to harmonize different parts of the United States Code with each other and to ensure that its interpretation of the individual statute at issue fits seamlessly into the existing external legal framework.

What this means for practitioners is that it is increasingly important to pay attention not just to the individual statute about which they are litigating, but also to the larger legal framework of which that statute is a part when urging a court to adopt a particular statutory construction. In other words, arguments about how a particular robbery statute should be interpreted should reference other robbery statutes; arguments about the deference owed to an agency interpretation should reference the Court’s treatment of interpretations made by other agencies; and arguments about the scope of an attorneys’ fees provision should reference other statutes with attorneys’ fees provisions. In my view, this is one of the statutory construction methodologies that carries significant sway with all of the Justices on the Roberts Court — and one to which it would behoove both law students and attorneys arguing statutory cases to pay greater attention.

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6 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for the useful post. I haven’t read the case yet, but may add it to my Spring Leg. syllabus. One more answer (entirely consistent with yours) as to what the Court is doing when it averts to other statutes and their prior interpretations:

    Code consistency arguably makes it easier for legislative drafters and enacters to predict the interpretive consequences of particular word choices. This is already an expectation of many repeat players on Capitol Hill. When I was first involved in legislative drafting (circa 2001), more than once I proposed text that (to me) seemed much, much clearer than other proposed language that had been chosen for insertion into bill text. I quickly learned the reason for preferring the language that was opaque and awkward: It was a cut-and-paste from a ‘sister’ statute that had been interpreted in desired ways by courts or agencies.

    One problem for this argument of course is that the SCT is not consistent in adhering to Code-like readings over time. (For example, some cong’al bill drafters and enacters may have relied on the SCT caselaw on implied-private-rights-of-action to their detriment.)

  2. TJ says:

    Good issue. I think the impetus goes further than just making the US code more consistent for its own sake. Ours is a system of reasoning by analogy, and part of the rationale is that if a system works for one statute, it probably works for another. For example, almost every state has a slightly differently worded Statute of Frauds. But courts over the centuries have largely figured out the right balance for various issues regarding when stuff has to be in writing. Adopting a different balance has the disadvantages of (1) introducing exotic concepts and making everyone learn more law, and (2) probably achieving less good outcomes under a “if its not broken, don’t fix it” philosophy. So while a legislature could certainly impose a different rule (e.g. the UCC for sales of goods), courts probably like their existing regime, and so anything that seems analogous will get shoehorned under the old rule absent a clear statement to the contrary.

  3. Hillel Y. Levin says:


    I am in total agreement with you, but I think that this is part of a much larger principle of statutory interpretation: the search for horizontal coherence.

    When I think about this principle, I see it underlying lots of canons of interpretation and moves that the courts make. It explains the rule against surplusage, the rules of meaningful variation and consistent usage, the in pari materia rules, the common law as gap-filler rule, constitutional avoidance, and many others.

    The points is that the courts want statutes to make sense within the larger body of law. Therefore, looking to how other statutes have been interpreted in similar situations makes sense.

    Shapiro touched on this (as well as a principle that I call vertical stability, which also underlies several canons and interpretive tools) in an article published in the early 90s, I think. And Calabresi’s Common Law for the Age of Statutes makes the point that judges are unique in their perspective, in that they see the entire body of law as one relatively coherent whole.

    I’ll only add that I think it is fair to critique this approach as based on a fiction that there IS a coherent whole. After all, WHO SAYS that the way different statutes treat this question has to be the same? So what if it is different? And maybe congress never thought about it, or doesn’t care either way? The response to this would be that in the absence of real evidence that congress wanted it to be incoherent, the courts should assume that there is coherence. And, as Kirsten points out, it serves as a tool to discipline congress.

  4. Anita Krishnakumar says:

    Thanks for all of the terrific comments!

    I especially agree with Hillel that this approach of referencing other statutes is part of a much larger principle of seeking to ensure horizontal coherence – one that also favors interpreting individual statutes in light of the common law, background constitutional principles, etc. I talk about this at length in my recent paper on the Roberts Court’s approach to statutory interpretation and distinguish it from an approach that is much more individual-statute focused.

    I also agree with Hillel’s criticisms of the Code coherence approach. I would only add that adherents of this methodology probably would defend it on the grounds that even if a Code coherence (or larger legal landscape coherence) approach is based on a fiction of sorts (as Scalia acknowledges a bit in his Matter of Interpretation), it is part of the court’s/judge’s job to make sure that law as a whole is sensible, consistent, and coherent.

  5. JR says:

    A recent Harvard Law Review case comment makes a similar point: