When Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu suffered concussion-like symptoms in a recent NFL game, he did what any decent husband might do: He walked to the sideline and called his wife Theodora to tell her he was fine. Polamalu, like so many football players, has a long history of concussions, so surely his wife would have been relieved to hear from her husband.
In response, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined Polamalu $10,000 for violating an NFL rule prohibiting “the use of cellular phones . . . and other electronic equipment . . . in club-controlled areas, including . . . sidelines.”
Goodell has been almost universally criticized for his decision to fine Polamalu. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Goodell’s decision lacked “common sense.” AOL columnist David Steele likened Goodell to a “deranged game-show host” for strictly applying the “letter of the law.” And Pittsburgh sports columnist Josh Yohe tweeted: “Goodell is a joke.”
By calling his wife, Polamalu certainly violated the letter of the NFL’s law, which contains a blanket prohibition against in-game cell phone use. Thus the problem, if there is one, with Goodell’s decision must be that he allowed the “letter of the law” (its text) to trump the “spirit of the law” (its purpose). Polamalu should not be fined, the argument must go, because the rule wasn’t really intended to apply to this case.
This tracks an important legal debate that has demanded considerable attention from the Supreme Court: When a statute’s text conflicts with its apparent purpose, which should govern?
There is an increasing consensus on the Supreme Court today that when the text of a statute is clear, the text governs, and there is no need to inquire into the statute’s purpose. In short, the Supreme Court today would probably side with Goodell.
This was not always the case. In the 1892 case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a statute banning contracts to import foreigners “to perform labor or service of any kind” did not proscribe a contract to import a religious minister into the United States. The Court conceded that the contract was prohibited under the letter of the law, because a priest performs “labor or service of any kind.” But Justice David Brewer, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the spirit should trump the letter because it “is a familiar rule that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit nor within the intention of its makers.” The Court held that the spirit of the statute was to apply only to manual labors, and so the Court allowed the religious contract.
But the modern Court is much more likely to apply the clear text of a rule like the NFL’s cell phone ban. A century after Justice Brewer wrote his paean to the spirit of the law, Justice Antonin Scalia, also writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, held in the 1998 case Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey that “in the context of an unambiguous statutory text,” arguments related to purpose or spirit are simply “irrelevant.”
Two developments in the law have driven this shift. The first is textualism, a mode of statutory interpretation that favors a statute’s semantic meaning over the perceived intent of Congress. Textualists argue that because laws are the product of messy legislative compromise, it is incoherent to assert that there is any single or discernable intent of a statute. Courts best respect the legislative compromise by applying a statute according to the terms and level of generality at which it was enacted. When a statute sets forth a rule (a binding directive: “no cell phone use on the sidelines”), it should be treated as a rule; when it sets forth a standard (an invitation to judicial balancing: “no cell phone use unless cell phone use is reasonable considering all the circumstances”), it should be treated as a standard.