Textualism, the Role and Authoritativeness of Tax Legislative History, and Stanley Surrey
When Stanley Surrey died in 1984, the school of thought sometimes known as the “new textualism” that has gained such influence in the United States over the last three decades had not yet emerged. Surrey would have been very interested in this development. As revealed in his recently published memoirs, he had extensive first-hand experience with the tax legislative process and recognized early on the connection between that process and statutory interpretation. He would have been surprised by some of the assumptions about the process underlying the new textualist claims as well as recent empirical findings about the process reported by scholars.
This essay aims to fill in some of Surrey’s missed engagement. Drawing on his memoirs and other sources, the essay describes aspects of the tax legislative process—the preparation of tax statutes and legislative history—of significance to statutory interpretation and the positions of the new textualists. Importantly, the description is at the granular level at which Surrey experienced it, material not generally included in standard political science or legal scholarship on the topic. After considering the on-the-ground realities of the tax legislative process, this essay contends that in interpreting tax statutes, courts should rely upon both textual canons and other common tools of judicial interpretation (questioned by recent scholar-empiricists) and legislative history (questioned by textualists). The essay also explains why, contrary to the claims of textualists, committee reports are authoritative evidence of statutory meaning.