Statutory Construction and the “Absurdity Doctrine” or “Scrivener’s Error” Exception.
In the case titled: In Re Last Will and Testament of Palecki, 2007 WL 1229498 ( Del. Ch., April 26, 2007 ), read opinion here, the Chancery Court provides a thorough discussion of statutory construction principles and the danger of the judicial branch encroaching into the province of the legislature. Although this case involved the application of statutes to determine the validity of a Codicil to a Will, the reasoning and the far-reaching statements of the proper role of the judiciary in the implementation of the public policy expressed by statute can be very useful in other cases of statutory construction.
The Chancery Court makes ample use in this case of quotes from former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The Chancery Court creates many quotable excerpts of its own that make this opinion recommended reading for any student of government interested in the interfacing between the judicial and legislative branches of government–and statutory construction principles in general.
What follows are a few money quotes that help to explain the very limited circumstances when a court should consider the result from a plain reading of a statute to be so absurd, that the court concluds there "must be a scrivenor’s error" by the legislature, so that the statute "really doesn’t say what the legislature meant to say." Here is a quote from both the court’s opinion and from C.J. Marshall:
For one thing, the interpretive maxim that permits a court to eschew a literal reading of a textually-unambiguous statute on the grounds that the literal reading produces absurd results has to be used with great caution and delicacy, lest the judiciary’s own sense of appropriate public policy outcomes usurp the powers entrusted to the elected legislative branch. For that reason, courts will only refuse to give effect to a linguistically faithful reading of a clear statute in the most extreme circumstances. As Chief Justice Marshall explained nearly two centuries ago, "[I]f … the plain meaning of a provision, not contradicted by any other provision in the same instrument, is to be disregarded, because we believe the framers of that instrument could not intend what they say, it must be one in which the absurdity and injustice of applying the provision to the case, would be so monstrous, that all mankind would, without hesitation, unite in rejecting the application." [FN1]
Here is another gem from Justice Scalia in footnote 46 of the opinion:
"[T]he sine qua non of any ‘scrivener’s error’ doctrine, it seems to me, is that the meaning genuinely intended but inadequately expressed must be absolutely clear; otherwise we might be rewriting the statute rather than correcting a technical mistake." X-Citement Video, 513 U.S. at 82 (Scalia, J., dissenting).