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American University Law Review


absurd result principle, statutory interpretation


The absurd result principle in statutory interpretation provides an exception to the rule that a statute should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. In an age of increasing debate about the proper approach to statutory interpretation, and of increasing emphasis on literal approaches, the absurd result principle poses intriguing challenges to literalism and to theories of interpretation generally.The absurd result principle is extraordinarily powerful. It authorizes a judge to ignore a statute's plain words in order to avoid the outcome those words would require in a particular situation. This is a radical thing; judges are not supposed to rewrite laws. Ordinarily, such actions would be condemned as a usurpation of the legislative role, an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers. Even when a genuine question exists about the actual meaning of the statute's words, it is generally considered to be illegitimate for a judge to make the choice between possible meanings on the basis that the real-life result of one meaning strikes the judge as somehow objectionable. The absurd result principle apparently gives just that power and authority to a judge. Yet this principle enjoys almost universal endorsement, even by those who are the most critical of judicial discretion and most insistent that the words of the statute are the only legitimate basis of interpretation. This intriguing combination of characteristics inspired this Article, which attempts to remedy some of the neglect and lack of understanding of the absurd result principle. The Article focuses on two questions about the principle: What does it mean? Where does it get its authority? The Article develops and discusses a definition of the concept of absurdity as used by the courts. In addition, it investigates the source of the principle's authority and its implications for theories of statutory interpretation.