Iqbal and Interpretation

51 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2011 Last revised: 13 Mar 2011

See all articles by Karen Petroski

Karen Petroski

Saint Louis University School of Law

Date Written: January 23, 2011


Assessing a year’s worth of debate over the 2009 Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, this article explains how the sharp divisions in that commentary mask a deeper consensus. What unsettles many observers about Iqbal is its suggestion that district court judges must interpret a civil complaint in order to decide whether it states a claim. As this article explains, although Iqbal does have this implication, it has been very difficult for us to see that this is in fact a virtue of the decision. Pleading scrutiny always has involved interpretation; if we find that suggestion troubling, it is only because the vocabulary we have long used to discuss the role and treatment of civil pleadings represses this fact. Ultimately, that vocabulary is rooted in a simplified account of the ideal function of pleading in our system of civil litigation, one that first took hold in the early twentieth century. The article describes the ways this account has shaped the debate over Iqbal and the contingent historical reasons for its dominance. Looking forward, it shows how Iqbal makes possible a genuinely new agenda for procedural scholarship, one drawing from work on other types of legal interpretation. And it suggests some of the specific ways in which this perspective can guide implementation of Iqbal.

Keywords: Civil procedure, pleading, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, interpretation, pragmatism, Charles E. Clark

Suggested Citation

Petroski, Karen, Iqbal and Interpretation (January 23, 2011). Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-05, Available at SSRN: or

Karen Petroski (Contact Author)

Saint Louis University School of Law ( email )

100 N. Tucker Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63101
United States
(314) 977-2773 (Phone)

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