The Purposive Analysis: The “Social Purpose” Rule

The final rule presented here is the “social purpose” rule, which could also be called the “common sense” rule. Under its purview, a statute will be construed to accomplish the social purpose it was designed to accomplish, even if that reading would contradict is literal reading.

For example, in Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., 490 U.S. 504 (1989), the Supreme Court declined to read the Federal Rule of Evidence literally, partly because a literal reading would have made unintended absurd distinctions. A literal reading of the word “defendant” in Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a) would have meant that in a civil case, evidence of a prior criminal conviction could be introduced to attack the credibility of the defendant but not that of the plaintiff. The Court found that distinction irrational. The Court thus gave priority to a reading that emphasized the purpose of the legislation.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg favors this statutory interpretation, and this wiki promotes this rule of interpretation as the only logical rule of statutory construction as well. During her confirmation hearing Justice Ginsburg emphasized the fact that the meaning of constitutional concepts needs to and does evolve over time. Then, soon-to-become Justice Ginsburg pointed out the absurdity of refusing such an approach when courts interpret the general concept of equality. The concept can be found in the Declaration of Independence, as well as in the 14th Amendment, she noted, but at none of those times did either the Founding Fathers or the Framers of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment have equal rights for women specifically in mind. However, today such a historically correct interpretation seems clearly absurd.

(For more details on Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, see The Supreme Court: Excerpts from Senate Hearings on the Ginsburg Nominations N.Y. TIMES: July 21, 1993, at 12. For a general commentary, see also R. Randall Kelso, The Natural Law Tradition on the Modern Supreme Court: Not Burke, But the Enlightenment Tradition Represented by Locke, Madison, and Marshall, 26 ST.MARY’S LJ. 1051, 1069-70 (1994-1995).)

Hopefully you have a better understating of the roles statutes play in our legal system. They govern a large part of our legal realm. They are dynamic and applied to cases and controversies in manners hard to predict, more often closer to the respective judge or justices’ personality than anything else. Thus, all statutory research will comprise two parts: Locating the statute is only the beginning of the process. Locating the cases applying it complements and ends your statutory retrieval.