More from Justice Scalia on the Utility of Legislative History

February 22nd, 2011

From Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC

Since our interpretation of §300aa–22(b)(1) is the only interpretation supported by the text and structure of theNCVIA, even those of us who believe legislative history is a legitimate tool of statutory interpretation have no need to resort to it. In any case, the dissent’s contention that itwould contradict our conclusion is mistaken.

The dissent’s legislative history relies on the following syllogism: A 1986 House Committee Report states that§300aa–22(b)(1) “sets forth the principle contained inComment k of Section 402A of the Restatement of Torts (Second);”67 in 1986 comment k was “commonly under-stood” to require a case-specific showing that “no feasible alternative design” existed; Congress therefore must have intended §300aa–22(b)(1) to require that showing.68 The syllogism ignores unhelpful statements in the Report andrelies upon a term of art that did not exist in 1986. …

The dissent buries another unfavorable piece of legisla-tive history. Because the Report believes that §300aa–22(b)(1) should incorporate “the principle in Comment K”and because the Act provides a generous no-fault compen-sation scheme, the Report counsels injured parties whocannot prove a manufacturing or labeling defect to “pursue recompense in the compensation system, not the tortsystem.”71 That counsel echoes our interpretation of §300aa–22(b)(1).

Not to worry, the dissent retorts, a Committee Report bya later Congress “authoritative[ly]” vindicates its interpre-tation.72 Post-enactment legislative history (a contradic-tion in terms) is not a legitimate tool of statutory interpre-tation. See Jones v. United States, 526 U. S. 227, 238 (1999); United States v. Mine Workers, 330 U. S. 258, 281– 282 (1947). Real (pre-enactment) legislative history ispersuasive to some because it is thought to shed light onwhat legislators understood an ambiguous statutory text to mean when they voted to enact it into law. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Services, Inc., 545 U. S. 546, 568 (2005). But post-enactment legislative history by defini-tion “could have had no effect on the congressional vote,”District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570, 605 (2008).

Justice Breyer concurred to reassert his preference for legislative history.

I join the Court’s judgment and opinion. In my view,the Court has the better of the purely textual argument. But the textual question considered alone is a close one. Hence, like the dissent, I would look to other sources, including legislative history, statutory purpose, and the views of the federal administrative agency, heresupported by expert medical opinion. Unlike the dissent, however, I believe these other sources reinforce the Court’s conclusion.