Supreme Court Ventures into Linguistic Analysis to Interpret Criminal Statute

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWhen legislators draft laws prescribing criminal punishments for certain acts, they must be precise when defining a criminal offense. Courts have struck down laws that are not “sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties.” Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391 (1926). Even with the best efforts of legislators and their staffs, however, sometimes a law presents multiple interpretations, and the courts must step in to resolve disputes between prosecutors and defendants. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case, Lockhart v. United States, that shows just how contentious statutory interpretation can be.

Courts may apply a variety of rules, sometimes known as “canons,” when considering a portion of a statute that could have more than one interpretation. To give but one example, if a statute lists certain specific items to make a more general point, the ejusdem generis canon would indicate that “the general words should be limited to persons or things similar to those specifically enumerated.” United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576 581 (1981). In a list consisting of “ostriches, emus, kiwis, and other animals,” the term “other animals” might therefore be interpreted as referring specifically to flightless birds, based on the examples that preceded it.

The statute before the Supreme Court in Lockhart deals with some highly unpleasant subject matter, but this is often where the most important legal developments occur. The defendant was charged under a statute that prohibits the possession, receipt, or distribution of child pornography. 18 U.S.C. § 2252. The statute includes a provision requiring a minimum 10-year prison sentence if the defendant has a prior conviction, under federal or state law, “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward…” Id. at § 2252(b)(2). The dispute involved whether “involving a minor or ward” applies only to the third listed offense, “abusive sexual conduct,” or whether it applies to all three.

The defendant had a prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult, and he argued that the mandatory minimum provision did not apply to him because his conviction was not for “sexual abuse involving a minor or ward.” Prosecutors instead argued that “involving a minor or ward” only applies to the third offense on the list. Both the trial and the appellate courts agreed with the prosecutors’ interpretation. See United States v. Lockhart, 749 F.3d 148 (2d Cir. 2014).

In his petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, the defendant urges the court to apply the “series qualifier canon,” which holds that “a modifier at the beginning or end of a series of terms modifies all the terms.” Lockhart v. U.S., No. 14-8358, pet. for writ. of cert. at 8-9, 26 (Sup. Ct., Jan. 14, 2015). The prosecution’s position is that the court should apply the “last antecedent rule,” under which a modifier “should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.” Id. at 8.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For more than 20 years, board-certified federal crimes lawyer Michael J. Brown has advocated for the rights of people facing criminal charges in west Texas state and federal courts. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can bring our many years of experience to your defense, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Court Vacates Guilty Plea in Minor Marijuana Case that Resulted in Twenty-Year Prison Sentence, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 9, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Order Finding Restrictive Bail Provision Unconstitutional, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 2, 2016

Federal Drug Laws Come into Conflict with Tribal Laws on Indian Land, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 23, 2015

Photo credit: Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.