Federal agencies regularly sail in murky constitutional waters. Established principles of statutory interpretation, however, leave federal courts adrift amid these dangerous shoals. When faced with agency interpretations that raise constitutional doubts, courts are torn. On the one hand, the famous rule of Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. instructs courts to defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own statute. On the other, cutting against deference, the longstanding canon of constitutional avoidance counsels courts, when possible, to choose a statutory construction avoiding serious constitutional doubts. Although the Supreme Court eventually resolved this dilemma in favor of the avoidance canon, the Court’s rationale remains somewhat of a mystery. Commentators generally tell a story of policy. This Note offers an alternative textualist account rooted in historical practice.
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