I filed another amicus brief in the Supreme Court last week that I regard as an example of using linguistics in legal argument. Although the brief contains no discussion of linguistics, it was enabled by the fact that I have learned, to a certain extent, how to think like a linguist.
The case is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, and it deals with employment discrimination. The linguistic issue that the brief deals with is the interpretation of prohibitions against discrimination “because of [the employee’s] age” or “because [the employee] has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” In particular, does the use of the word because in these provisions require the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was what’s known in the law as a “but for” cause of the adverse action? Or is it enough for the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was one of several motivations for the action, any one of which would have been sufficient on its own?
The D.C. Circuit’s recent decision regarding the Recess Appointments Clause (Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board) bills itself as an exercise in Heller-style textualism: “When interpreting a constitutional provision, we must look at the natural meaning of the text as it would have been understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 2788 (2008).” As a result, much of the decision is devoted linguistic issues.
I’m going to take a look at how the court handled some of those issues—at the conclusion it reached and the reasoning it used to get there.
The verdict: the Recess Appointments Clause is a lot less clear than the D.C. Circuit makes it out to be, and the court’s reasoning isn’t very good.
Ordinarily, the president’s power to appoint high-level officials is subject to the requirement that his choices be confirmed by the Senate. But because the Senate isn’t always open for business, the Constitution provides that the president “shall have the Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” One of the questions raised by this provision is what exactly is meant by the phrase the Recess of the Senate. That’s the issue I will discuss in this post.
To put the question into context, here’s some quick background. Every two years, when the most recently-elected members of the House of Representatives start their terms, a new term of Congress begins. Each new term is referred to as a separate Congress; the current Congress is the 113th. Since the Constitution requires Congress to meet at least once a year, each two-year Congress is divided into at least two officially-designated sessions. Currently, the 113th Congress is in its first session.
In between its formally-designated sessions, Congress is in recess. Everyone agrees that these breaks count as “recesses” for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause. Congress also takes breaks periodically during each officially-designated session. During those breaks, Congress is simultaneously in session and not in session. It is in session because the officially-designated session is still in progress, but it is out of session because it has temporarily stopped conducting business.
The question is whether these breaks within an officially-designated session constitute “recesses” such that the president can exercise his recess-appointment power. According to the D.C. Circuit, the answer is no.
Posted in "recess", "the", Ambiguity, Cases, Constitution, Corpus lexicography, Definiteness, Dictionaries, Indeterminacy, Law & linguistics, Noel Canning v. NLRB, Recess Appointments Clasue, Semantics, Textualism, Underspecification, Words
I thought I’d take a break from talking about Reading Law, and instead discuss a case that will be of interest to patent lawyers and to aficionados of interpretations that are breathtakingly bad. Actually, most of the patent lawyers probably know about the case already, although they don’t necessarily know about the decision’s breathtaking badness.
[This is Part 4 of my look at Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts by Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner. (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.)]
Included in Reading Law’s list of 57 canons of interpretation are seven that are described as “syntactic canons.” Of these, three are the most important:
Last-Antecedent Canon. A pronoun, relative pronoun, or demonstrative adjective generally refers to the nearest reasonable antecedent.
Series-Qualifier Canon. When there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies to the entire series.
Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon. When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent.
In this post I’m first going to look at these canons fit in with the existing law and then at whether they hang together as a coherent set of principles. And since the post is a long one, here’s the executive summary: First, the canons as formulated in Reading Law differ from the existing law in some important ways. Second, they don’t hang together as a coherent set of principles.
Posted in Ambiguity, Bryan Garner, Canons of interpretation, Language mavens, Law, Law & linguistics, Liparota v. United States, Rule of the last antecedent, Scalia, Statutory interpretation, Syntactic
[Updated. Part 1; Part 2]
One of the recurring problems in interpreting statutes and other texts is that of syntactic (i.e., grammatical) ambiguity. Reading Law sets out three canons of interpretation that are intended to deal with this problem: the Last-Antecedent Canon, the Series-Qualifier Canon, and the Nearest-Reasonable Referent Canon. I’m going to take a look at these canons, but I think that it would be helpful if I first say a few words about syntactic ambiguity and how to analyze it.
This, belatedly, is the third installment of my discussion of the court-of-appeals decision in Sherley v. Sebelius, which reversed the lower court’s conclusion that the federal government is forbidden from funding research on human embryonic stem cells. The first two installments are here (part 1) and here (part 2); you should read them first if you haven’t done so already or if they’ve faded from your memory. (As before, I’ll note that I represent the Genetics Policy Institute as an amicus curiae in the case, supporting the government.)
One of the points of disagreement between the majority opinion and the dissent was over how to interpret the Dickey-Wicker Amendment’s use of the present tense (“research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed…”). The dispute arises because a line of stem cells derived from a particular embryo can be kept in existence indefinitely and as a result can provide stem cells for research that is performed many years later. For example, under the Bush-administration guidelines, federal funding was available only for research projects that used stem cells that had been derived before August 9, 2001, when the Bush policy was announced. And NIH maintains a registry of stem-cell lines that qualify for use in federally-funded research. There is therefore a good chance that an applicant seeking NIH funds will use stem cells from a preexisting cell line.
The majority rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the government may not fund research using such a preexisting line of stem cells, and in doing so the Dickey-Wicker Amendment’s use of the present tense played a big part: