The Limits of Textualism: Cooper v IBM Personal Pension Plan
Few judges are as self-conscious of, or as open about, their view of statutory interpretation as Frank Easterbrook. He is a leading proponent of the view that judges should apply statutes in accordance with their terms, without giving in to the temptation to surreptitiously amend those statutes to better accord with their alleged “purpose.” Such “boosting the level of generality—switching from rules to results,” he contends, oversteps the bounds of the judicial role. This theory of statutory interpretation stems in part from Judge Easterbrook’s belief that it is impossible to discern the “intent” of a collective body such as a legislature, and in part from his conviction that most legislation results from compromises, and “compromises lack purposes.” Thus, he exalts the Supreme Court’s decision in Guidry v Sheet Metal Workers National Pension Fund, finding that the antialienation clause of Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) protected the pension rights of a pension fund trustee against monetary claims made by victims of his embezzlement. And indeed, many of his opinions resound with the rhetoric of “textualism.” Yet, determined as Judge Easterbrook is to make his decisions seem so straightforward as to be beneath him, they sometimes depend more than he is willing to admit on nontextual “purposive” analysis.