Canons of construction serve as a set of ground rules that judges rely on in interpreting statutes. Substantive canons of construction, in particular, are principles and presumptions that point judges in a specific policy direction in order to serve underlying public values. Many of these substantive canons share a common justification: judges have developed them to mitigate threats of irreversible harm to vulnerable and underrepresented interests and to incentivize clarity in the legislative process. This Article argues that environmental interests—the interests of present and future generations in maintaining ecological conditions that support life—merit similar protection. Therefore, judges should employ an environmental canon of construction: whenever possible, statutes must be read in a manner that best promotes ecological integrity and sustainability for present and future generations.

The Article examines several common substantive canons and concludes that environmental interests and values justify a similar canon. An environmental canon of construction also finds support in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which provides that “the policies, regulations, and public laws of the United States shall be interpreted and administered in accordance with” the environmental policies listed in the statute. Recognizing a substantive environmental canon would place ecological concerns on the same level, legally and rhetorically, with other fundamental rights and concerns—granting legitimacy to the consideration of environmental impacts in judicial reasoning and bringing our legal system in line with scientific understanding of our role and responsibility in an ecologically interdependent world.

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