Do People Prefer the Text or the Spirit of the Law? It Depends, Researchers Say

May 3, 2023

When asked to interpret a law, do people tend to focus more on the text or its purpose? Are there circumstances that might cause them to focus on one method rather than the other?

Associate Professor Kevin Tobia and his colleagues sought to answer these questions in a recent empirical study, “Coordination and Expertise Foster Legal Textualism,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Tobia and his international collaborators, led by Ivar Hannikainen of the University of Granada, recruited more than 5,000 participants across 15 countries for an online survey experiment.

Professor Kevin Tobia

Professor Kevin Tobia

Participants were asked to evaluate a few different hypothetical scenarios. One involved a zero-tolerance alcohol consumption law, which was passed for the purpose of avoiding accidents and stated that if a breathalyzer detects any trace of alcohol on a driver, the driver will be punished.

In one scenario, the defendant has violated only the rule’s text (e.g. driving after using alcohol-containing mouthwash); in another, the defendant has violated only the rule’s purpose (e.g. driving after taking ecstasy).

The study found that, regardless of nationality, both text and purpose impact how individuals rule whether a violation of the law has occurred, but when encouraged to coordinate with others, people will rely more on text. Those with legal expertise also tended to align themselves with a rule’s text over its purpose.

“If you think about a rule whose text and purpose conflict, why would people go with the text?” Tobia said. “One possible answer is that the text can be an easier way to come to a conclusion when coordinating between several points of view, and there is value in that coordination.”

Tobia is just one of several members of the Georgetown faculty, including Law Center professors Greg Klass, John Mikhail and Victoria Nourse and main campus linguistics and computer science professor Nathan Schneider, who have published leading research in experimental jurisprudence, a new and growing field that uses methods from philosophy, psychology and linguistics to clarify the law. Tobia, who founded and leads the Georgetown Lab for the Empirical Study of Law and Language, also regularly teaches the upper-level class Experimental Jurisprudence. University Professor David Luban tackles similar topics with students in Legal Philosophy Seminar: Legal Interpretation.