Washington Law Review


The absurd results doctrine of statutory interpretation allows courts to depart from clear legislative text when a literal reading would be “absurd.” Traditionally, courts defined an absurd result as one that offends fundamental social values. Over time, however, courts have expanded the concept of legal absurdity to include outcomes that do not violate moral principles, but instead present regulatory burdens deemed too onerous to reflect congressional intent. In June 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invoked this expansive reading of the absurd results doctrine to support a regulation known as the “Tailoring Rule,” which the agency promulgated as part of its first effort to regulate climate-changing greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA explicitly states that facilities emitting any regulated air pollutant in excess of specific quantities must obtain a permit from the EPA or authorized state agencies. The Tailoring Rule, however, raises the statutory permitting threshold for facilities that emit greenhouse gases, on the ground that applying the existing thresholds to greenhouse gas emitters would be so burdensome for the agency and industry as to constitute an absurd result. While the Tailoring Rule illustrates the practical expediency of an expansive absurd results doctrine, it also demonstrates the doctrine’s inconsistency with the constitutional separation of powers, administrative law principles, and the mandate of federal environmental statutes. Focusing on the example of environmental law and the Tailoring Rule in particular, this Comment argues that courts should restrict the absurd results doctrine to its traditional scope and reject arguments that a certain degree of congressionally mandated regulation is absurd as a matter of law.

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