Monday, June 25, 2018
Alice Abreu (Temple) & Richard Greenstein (Temple), Rules vs Standards (JOTWELL) (reviewing Sarah Lawsky (Northwestern), A Logic for Statutes 20 Fla. Tax Rev. ___ (2018)):
Professor Sarah Lawsky (Northwestern) has written a fascinating and thought-provoking essay on the logic of statutory interpretation—specifically as it applies to the Internal Revenue Code. Notwithstanding a long tradition of scholarship addressing the interpretation of legislative texts in general, careful attention to interpretation of the Code has received comparatively little attention. An important reason for this, as we have argued in previously published articles, has been the tendency to frame Code provisions as rules and to apply them deductively to the facts of particular cases. Such a practice pushes in the direction of a more-or-less mechanical interpretation of the Code, which in turn makes questions regarding statutory interpretation seem fairly uninteresting. Professor Lawsky’s essay engages directly and critically with this practice.
Professor Lawsky argues that while the application of statutes involves “rule-based reasoning,” it is “not best understood as merely deductive.” Rather, the proper logical model for understanding statutory reasoning is what Professor Lawsky calls “default logic.” She argues that application of the Internal Revenue Code does not proceed as the direct, deductive application of an individual statutory provision to a set of facts; rather, the structure of the Code comprises two different orders of rules: (1) “default rules” (if-then rules) and (2) priority rules (rules that establish the “relationship between” and the “relative priority of” the default rules). As an example, Professor Lawsky applies this more complex rule structure to Section 163(h) of the Code (which permits a deduction for home mortgage interest), and argues that default logic “more accurately reflects rule-based legal reasoning as actually practiced by lawyers, judges, and legislative drafters.” ...
Professor Lawsky’s analysis of statutory reasoning in the context of tax law is an important contribution to this undertheorized concern for practitioners and scholars. From our different perspectives we share the objective of showing that the application of the Internal Revenue Code is a more complex enterprise than has been traditionally thought. Her objection that statutory interpretation is “taken as simple in legal scholarship” seems to us a correct worry, especially when applied to tax analysis. Professor Lawsky’s essay vigorously engages with that mistaken view, and in so doing, pushes forward the development of this critical issue in tax jurisprudence.