The Importance of Other Statutes in Statutory Interpretation
posted by Anita Krishnakumar
In one of the few decisions it has handed down thus far this term, Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Supreme Court relies heavily on a statutory interpretation technique that tends to confound students, but that forms a staple in its interpretive methodology: References to/extrapolation from other statutes and prior Supreme Court cases interpreting them. Union Pacific raises the question whether, under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a party’s alleged failure to exhaust certain grievance procedures before proceeding to arbitration in front of a panel of National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) members is a jurisdictional claim that may be raised sua sponte by the arbitration panel or an ordinary claim that must be raised by the parties in their papers.
The RLA requires employees and railroads to exhaust the grievance procedures specified in their collective bargaining agreement before resorting to arbitration. As the final pre-arbitration grievance procedure, the Act directs parties to attempt settlement “in conference” between designated representatives of the railroad and the employee. In Union Pacific, the parties engaged in at least two pre-arbitration conferences; however, the employees neglected to include proof that conferencing had taken place in the materials ultimately submitted to the arbitrators. The railroad did not raise this lack of record evidence, but one of the industry representatives on the panel did — and despite the employees’ after-the-fact submission of evidence that the conferences did occur, the arbitration panel dismissed the employees’ arbitration petitions, concluding that it lacked authority to assume jurisdiction over the employees’ claims given the employees’ failure to submit proof-of-conferencing prior to the closing of the record.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision handed down last week, ruled that the arbitration panel was wrong to dismiss the employees’ arbitration petition on jurisdictional grounds. In so doing, it relied extensively on its own prior constructions of what it deemed to be analogous statutory provisions in Title VII and the Bankruptcy Code. First, it noted that a Title VII provision requiring complainants to file a timely charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity commission (EEOC) before proceeding to court had been ruled non-jurisdictional (and therefore forfeitable if not timely raised by a party). “[C]onferencing is surely no more ‘jurisdictional’ than is the presuit resort to the EEOC held forfeitable in Zipes.” Similarly, the Court referenced its recent decision ruling non-jurisdictional (and forfeitable) the Title VII provision exempting employers who engage fewer than 15 employees. And last, the Court cited a prior ruling that a Chapter 7 trustee’s limited time to object to the debtor’s discharge is a claim-processing, rather than a jurisdictional, matter. Finally, the Court distinguished prior cases holding that time limitations for filing notices of appeal are jurisdictional.
What is the Court doing when it engages in such United States Code-searching (and caselaw-searching) for analogous federal statutes and cases interpreting those statutes? Some might argue that it is looking for a way to justify an interpretation it has chosen for other (i.e., ideological) reasons. In my view, however, this explanation is incomplete. It seems to me that in canvassing the United States Code (and its own caselaw) for analogous statutory provisions (and its prior interpretations of those provisions), the Court is looking for a way to maintain consistency across the United States Code. That is, it is seeking to harmonize different parts of the United States Code with each other and to ensure that its interpretation of the individual statute at issue fits seamlessly into the existing external legal framework.
What this means for practitioners is that it is increasingly important to pay attention not just to the individual statute about which they are litigating, but also to the larger legal framework of which that statute is a part when urging a court to adopt a particular statutory construction. In other words, arguments about how a particular robbery statute should be interpreted should reference other robbery statutes; arguments about the deference owed to an agency interpretation should reference the Court’s treatment of interpretations made by other agencies; and arguments about the scope of an attorneys’ fees provision should reference other statutes with attorneys’ fees provisions. In my view, this is one of the statutory construction methodologies that carries significant sway with all of the Justices on the Roberts Court — and one to which it would behoove both law students and attorneys arguing statutory cases to pay greater attention.