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Intisar A. Rabb, Metacanons: Comparative Textualism (Harv. Pub. L. Working Paper No. 22-24, 2022).

Abstract: This Paper uncovers a striking feature of statutory interpretation that joins the rise of “new new new” textualism on today’s Supreme Court and elsewhere. It reveals the increasing sway of the now infamous canons of construction across two very different legal systems: American law and Islamic law. These two systems of law share many of the same legal canons despite the radically different institutional structures, origins, and commitments of each system historically and today. They are perhaps maximally different. Probing each system individually then juxtaposing the two reveals shared, ‘meta’ features of legal canons between them. To be sure, such comparison may seem improbable, difficult, or meaningless at first blush. But after overcoming hurdles of the improbable, it becomes clear that the existence, continued use, and recent resurgence of legal canons in both systems suggest that the common features of their shared canons—metacanons—play out in almost every interpretation. This Article explores the nexus between the two. The idea of metacanons, beyond showing the value of comparison, helps delineate how and why the current U.S. Supreme Court must choose between using legal canons to bolster rule-of-law coherence or to mediate democratic values. My basic argument is twofold. First, I argue that courts demonstrably have abandoned the notion of court-congress dialogue in applications of legal canons today in ways that resonate closely with the differing structures of Islamic law Muslim jurists in older systems of Islamic law had initially adopted a similar notion but recognized as fictive long ago. Second, I argue that the facts of similar legal canons in disparate legal systems, both lacking in institutional dialogue, meaningfully informs the raging debates about both the means and the ends of statutory interpretation. These facts call for resolution and new approaches to the judicial use of legal canons, with an eye on metacanonical inquiries. In the end, I argue that our era of declining (or fictitious) institutional dialogue between Courts and Congress mean that legal canons in today’s Supreme Court are once again interpretive tools solely for judicial interpreters, who now face a choice. Judges who have dispensed with the myth of dialogue should seek more coherent use of canons to bolster rule-of-law values. Identifying the universal features of metacanons can aid that path. Or, judges should re-open the channels of dialogue and deploy the canons to mediate the ongoing cases and controversies about changing values in light of constitutional norms and congressional preferences. This is a path that Islamic law judges did not (and could not) pursue. But thrown into relief by metacanons, this path offers a unique prospect for advancing American democracy.