The Role of Contextual Meaning in Judicial Interpretation

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Abstract

This article examines the relevance to judicial interpretation of contextual meaning: the meaning legal texts hold when considered in full light of their social and moral context. I argue first that, as a descriptive matter, contextual meaning is necessarily prior to any more restricted form of textual interpretation; that is, the contextual meaning of a legal text is its ordinary meaning. I then contend that, as a normative matter, judges should presumptively apply ordinary or contextual meaning when construing legal materials. The remainder of the article explores the nature and limitations of the contextualist model of judicial practice. The possibility of conflicts between contextual factors at different levels of abstraction makes it necessary to distinguish narrow and wide versions of the contextualist methodology. I argue that wide contextualism offers the best overall account of judicial interpretation. I conclude by examining the practical and normative limitations of this model.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)417-442
Number of pages26
JournalFederal Law Review
Volume41
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

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