Columbia Law Review
In 1892, the Supreme Court construed the Alien Contract Labor Act of 1885, which barred importation of “any alien” under contract to perform “labor or service of any kind,” as not prohibiting a New York church from hiring a British pastor to occupy its vacant pulpit. “[A] thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of its makers,” wrote Justice David Brewer in Holy Trinity Church v. United States. Brewer's opinion is a touchstone for those seeking to overcome plain statutory language, but is condemned by those who disapprove of using legislative history and challenge Brewer's understanding of Congress's intent. Professor Chomsky argues that a complete history of the case and statute reveals the Court was correct in its judgment and Holy Trinity demonstrates the soundness of relying on legislative history to construe statutes properly.
Carol Chomsky, Unlocking the Mysteries of Holy Trinity: Spirit, Letter, and History in Statutory Interpretation, 100 Colum. L. Rev. 901 (2000), available at http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/14.