Saying What the Law Is

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Exploring what it means to take formal law as an ethnographic object—a social phenomenon that both reflects and affects the society that produced it—this article analyzes the legal doctrine governing the judicial review of agency action. This doctrine is split into two streams: one evaluates agency interpretations of law, the other, agency policy decisions. In choosing to use one or the other, courts thus implicitly categorize the agency action under review as either interpretation or implementation. As interviews with agency administrators underline, however, these categories do not map onto the structure of agency action. Neither do they reflect the qualities of legal language. Rather than reacting to the inherent realities of their object, these doctrines instantiate a language ideology that pits the saying of law against the doing of it. After a brief introduction to language ideologies, I show some linguistic and legal realities that this particular one erases, and trace its recursive ramification in other areas of legal thought. Obscuring the speech-act nature of law, the saying-versus-doing language ideology helps commentators paint a picture of ideal judges as neutral, passive interpreters who merely report on the inherent meaning of law, as opposed to less ideal others who implement policies that change it. I also consider what a new language ideology—one that recognizes that the meaning of legal language emerges in part through its effects in the world—might do.

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Law & Social Inquiry: Journal of the American Bar Foundation

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