Category Archives: Ambiguity

More on the dueling canons

After further thought about my dueling-canons post, I have a few additional points that I need make. And also a special offer for law-review staff members.

First, I have to make a correction. I spoke too broadly when I said that Reading Law didn’t cite anything in the prior caselaw to show that there existed such a thing as the Series-Qualifier Canon. The book does cite cases stating that when an adjective appears before a series of nouns, it is generally understood to modify all the items. It also cites cases that can be read to state an analogous proposition with respect to adverbs and verbs. And it cites cases that reach results consistent with those propositions, but without making any broad generalizations. So I shouldn’t have said there was no support in the caselaw for the Series-Qualifier Canon as it relates to modifiers that precede the items they modify.

However, the situation is different as to modifiers that follow the items they modify. In the cases that are cited that involved such constructions, the decision was based narrowly on the specifics of the particular statute, not on general statements about how such constructions are generally understood. In fact two of the cases cited the Rule of the Last Antecedent, but interpreted the modifier as having a wider scope based on other factors—as the Rule recognizes is possible. So not only do those cases not support the Series-Qualifier Canon with respect to postmodification, but they provide further evidence that the carve-out from the Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon is not justified by the caselaw.

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Coming to SCOTUS: Battle of the dueling interpretive canons. [Updated]

THE CANONS OF LEGAL INTERPRETATION are pithy sayings setting out various ways in which statutes should or should not be interpreted:

Every word in a statute should be given effect.
Expressio unius est exclusion alterius (the expression of one thing suggests the exclusion of others).
Ejusdem generis (interpret a general term to reflect the class of objects reflected in more specific terms accompanying it).
Statutes should be presumed not to apply extraterritorially.
and so forth.

Karl Llewellyn, a prominent mid-20th century legal scholar, famously said that “there are two opposing canons on almost every point.” On November 3, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Lockhart v. United States, a case that presents about as stark a clash between opposing canons as you could ever hope to find.

Lockhart is of interest to us here at LAWnLinguistics because the canons at issue are among the small group of “linguistic canons”—those that deal with language-related issues. In particular, they deal with resolving ambiguities that arise as a result of the statutory language having more than one plausible syntactic structure. I dealt at some length with the general issue of syntactic ambiguity, and with the specific canons that are now at issue in Lockhart, in my multipart look at Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and legal-writing guru Bryan Garner. (Of my previous posts about the book the ones most relevant here are Syntactic ambiguity, Three syntactic canons, On Garner on Posner on Scalia & Garner, and Last antecedents, series qualifiers, and psycholinguistics.)

In those posts (particularly the last three) I criticized several aspects of how Reading Law treated the canons that are now at issue in Lockhart. And those some of those criticisms, as well as others that have occurred to me as I’ve thought about Lockhart, are pertinent to the legal issues in the case. And more broadly, as I’ve continued to think about Reading Law’s handling of the syntactic canons, I’ve come to believe that the framework established by Reading Law is not merely problematic, but deeply flawed. And as it turns out, Lockhart provides a good lens through which those flaws can be examined.

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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.

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Last antecedents, series qualifiers, and psycholinguistics

In my post Three syntactic canons, I discussed the three canons of interpretation in Scalia and Garner’s Reading Law that deal with syntactic ambiguities:

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.

At the end of the post, I raised the question whether the preferences stated in these canons can be justified on purely linguistic grounds—i.e., whether they represent “valid generalization[s] about how expressions in English are understood[.]” I’m going to try to answer that question here.

This post is a long one, so let me say up front that the verdict on these canons is a mixed one. The good news is that in some categories of cases where these canons apply, there is in fact a linguistic justification for applying them, by which I mean that in those applications the canons more or less parallel one of the recognized tendencies in how people process and comprehend sentences. (The same parallel applies to the rule of the last antecedent as it’s generally applied by the courts, which differs somewhat from the Scalia–Garner version).

Now the bad news. First, the processing tendency that I’ve referred to is just one of the factors that  influences how a given sentence is understood, and other factors can exert an influence in a different direction. So even in cases where the canons are consistent with this processing tendency, it’s hard to say in advance whether applying the canons would result in a linguistically justified interpretation.

Second, in the canons’ other applications, I don’t think there is the same parallel between the canons and the kinds of processing tendencies that I’ve referred to above. And more than that, in a large subset of those applications, the canons are actually inconsistent with what the literature on processing tendencies would predict. In those applications, therefore, there is reason to think that applying the canons would result in interpretations that are linguistically unjustified.

On to the details.

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On Garner on Posner on Scalia & Garner

I’ve been out of the country, with intermittent internet acess, while the controversy over Judge Posner’s review of review of Scalia & Garner’s book Reading Law has been brewing, and it’s only just now that I’ve seen Bryan Garner’s response to the review.

I haven’t looked at the cases Posner discusses in his review, so I’m not going to comment on whose reading of those cases is correct. But I do want to point out an inaccuracy in Garner’s response.

Garner says that all the canons of interpretation that are discussed in the book “are well established and have been frequently applied[.]” But as I think I’ve shown in my earlier post Three Syntactic Canons, that’s not correct. Both the Series-Qualifier Canon and the Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon break new ground in fairly significant ways. (See the earlier post for the details.) And I’ll add here that the “rule” from which I think the Series-Qualifer Canon derives is one that courts have not cited very often.
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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.

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Three syntactic canons

[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.

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