August 24, 2015

Firefighters’ employment rights limited; the Supreme Court, and Justice Cuéllar separately, come down on the anti-textualist side of the statutory interpretation debate

The Supreme Court today cuts back on the rights of firefighters to review negative comments about them, and, in the process, also weighs in on a debate about how to construe statutes.  In Poole v. Orange County Fire Authority, a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye holds that, although the Firefighters Procedural Bill of Rights Act allows firefighters to review and respond to negative comments “entered in his or her personnel file, or any other file used for any personnel purposes by his or her employer,” they cannot have access to a daily log kept by a supervisor as a memory aid in preparing performance plans and reviews.  The key to the court’s decision is that “the log was not shared with or available to anyone other than the supervisor who wrote the log.”

Interpreting the legislation at issue, the court adopts an approach that is decidedly anti-textualist.  The court says that the statutory language “might, in isolation, be read broadly enough to include” the daily log as “any other file used for any personnel purposes,” but concludes that “critical to an understanding of [the provision] is its statutory context,” which requires a narrower construction.

Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar writes a concurring opinion to elaborate on the general theme of looking at more than statutory language when interpreting legislation.  “[H]owever important it is to train our attention on the plain meaning of a statutory provision we are construing,” he says, “we must read that provision as we do here — in its larger context — when deciding whether its meaning is plain.”  Justice Cuéllar states, “The devil, in short, is in the details.  And the details are elucidated by context — the statutory structure and the words of surrounding or related provisions.”

The court reverses the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Three.

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