This blog usually doesn't cover criminal matters unless they involve piracy or the ocean environment. But, last year's case about the meaning of the word "vessel" has us on the watch for cases involving, well..., grammar.
The Supreme Court handed down a decision today which attempted to address what Congress means when it lists a string of nouns or conditions followed by a modifier at the end. Does the modifier only modify the last condition or does it modify all three? If Congress wanted to modify all three, how would it write the list of conditions?
The case is Lockhart v. United States and it involved the construction of a criminal statute providing for a mandatory minimum sentence for defendants convicted of possession of child pornography when the defendant has a prior conviction "under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward."
The defendant argued that the "involving a minor or ward" language modified all three of the preceding offenses. The government argued that the condition only modified the last offense.
The Supreme Court found that the "involving a minor or ward" language only modified the last condition, citing the Rule of the Last Antecedent. The defense cited the statutory interpretation maxim of the series qualifier rule.
The majority opinion authored by Justice Sotomayor puts it this way:
For example, imagine you are the general manager of the Yankees and you are rounding out your 2016 roster. You tell your scouts to find a defensive catcher, a quick-footed shortstop, or a pitcher from last year’s World Champion Kansas City Royals. It would be natural for your scouts to confine their search for a pitcher to last year’s championship team, but to look more broadly for catchers and shortstops.
The dissent authored by Justice Kagan puts it this way:
Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet “an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.” You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast—not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander. Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.” Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California? And consider a law imposing a penalty for the “violation of any statute, rule, or regulation relating to insider trading.” Surely a person would have cause to protest if punished under that provision for violating a traffic statute. The reason in all three cases is the same: Everyone understands that the modifying phrase— “involved with the new Star Wars movie,” “in New York,” “relating to insider trading”—applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.
What do you think?
And the public wonders why the statute books are so voluminous.