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Noah Feldman

Scalia's Classic 'Textualism' Will Be His Legacy

His practice of interpreting laws word-for-word has a following among judges.
The text will endure.

The text will endure.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

To the public, Justice Antonin Scalia was best known for his hard-line conservatism and his originalist constitutional thought. But to judges and lawyers, not to mention law professors, Scalia was better known for his distinctive philosophy for interpreting statutes, known as textualism. Scalia didn’t invent originalism. But he did invent textualism, at least as practiced by many judges today, and it stands as his most important contribution to legal thought.

Scalia’s death at 79 is a good occasion to ask whether textualism is here to stay. My answer is a qualified yes. Although I think Scalia’s originalism is likely to fade, the basic textualist method of interpreting statutes according to the words while eschewing legislative history and purpose has a future -- because it has a past.