Category Archives: Semantics

The Recess Appointments Clause (Part 1)

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.

The issue

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.

Continue reading

Always speaking?

I have an article coming out (link) in the Canadian Journal of Linguistics, in a special issue on time and modality in legal language. The title is “Always speaking”? Interpreting the present tense in statutes. Here’s the abstract:

This article takes a critical look through the lens of linguistics at the “always-speaking” principle in law — an influential principle that is recited in materials on legislative drafting as the justification for using the present tense, adopted in many common-law jurisdictions as a principle of interpretation, and accepted as a foundation for the linguistic analysis of the use of tense in statutes. The article concludes that the principle is an inadequate basis for interpreting or analysing statutes, for at least two reasons: (i) the interpretive results that the principle is intended to support are explainable in terms of widely accepted principles in the analysis of tense, without any need to posit special principles that apply only to statutes; and (ii) the interpretations that would be required if the always-speaking principle were taken seriously would in many cases probably be regarded as unnatural by native speakers of English.

Judicial Howlers: Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co.

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.

Continue reading

Sherley v. Sebelius: Interpreting the statute’s use of the present tense

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:

Continue reading

Sherley v. Sebelius: What does “research” mean?

This is the second installment of my look at the recent court of appeals decision in Sherley v. Sebelius, the litigation over federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The first installment, which sets the stage, is here. And before I begin, let me repeat that I represent the Genetics Policy Institute as an amicus curiae in support of the government in the case, and that some of what I say here will be adapted from my brief.

I ended my last post by noting that one of the points of disagreement between the majority and the dissent was about whether the word research could be understood to denote a “discrete project.” The majority concluded that the word as used in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment could in fact be understood in that way—an understanding under which the focus is on the specific work for which funding is sought:

NIH funding decisions are forward-looking, requiring the NIH to “determine  whether what is proposed to be funded meets with its requirements.” Therefore, a grant application to support research that includes the derivation of stem cells would have to be rejected….The definition of research is flexible enough to describe either a discrete project or an extended process, but this flexibility only reinforces our conclusion that the text is ambiguous. [paragraph break deleted]

Continue reading

A linguist walks into an app store… (part 1)

You’re no doubt aware by now that Apple and Microsoft have hired linguists as expert witnesses in their battle before the Patent and Trademark Office about whether Apple can trademark the expression App Store. Robert Leonard is testifying (actually, report-ifying) for Apple and Ron Butters is doing the same for Microsoft. Their reports are available here (Leonard) and here (Butters), and the electronic docket for the case, with links to the other filings, is here. (Warning: a few of the links seem to be broken.)

The issue that Leonard and Butters are opining about is whether the expression App Store is a proper name that distinctively identifies the particular location in cyberspace where one goes to get apps for one’s iPhone, as Apple contends, or whether it is a generic term for stores where one gets apps of any kind, as Microsoft argues.

I’m not going to comment here on who I think should win this fight, but I do want to make a few observation about some broader (and narrower) issues, starting with a look at how genericness (a/k/a genericity) is regarded in trademark law on the one hand and in linguistics on the other.

Continue reading

Sex-change surgery and universal grammar

[This originally appeared on Language Log in February 2010, as a guest post.]

The United States Tax Court recently decided that payments for sex-reassignment surgery are deductible as medical expenses. Among the 15 judges, there were six separate opinions, with five of the judges dissenting. Most of the debate dealt with questions like whether Gender Identity Disorder is a “disease” (a key term in the statue) and if so whether sex-reassignment surgery, which doesn’t change the patient’s subjective sense of gender identity, constitutes a “treatment” for the disease (ditto).

Those are issues with interesting linguistic dimensions, but what I want to talk about here is a different aspect of the case: the dispute about how to interpret disjunction under negation—i.e., how to interpret expressions such as I don’t know anything about linguistics or tax law (with don’t signaling negation and or signaling disjunction).

Continue reading