Category Archives: Cases

The Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the word “because”

The post before this one, dealing with the dueling canons in Lockhart v. United States, was my first after a gap of more than two years. In my last post before that gap, I wrote about an amicus brief I had just filed in the Supreme Court in Nassar v. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The brief dealt with the meaning of the construction because of X. Specifically, it dealt with whether that construction incorporates the notion of but-for causation as part of its meaning. My brief argued that it does not.

The Supreme Court had previously reached the opposite conclusion, in a case involving the Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Gross v. FBL Financial Services. In Nassar, the question was whether the holding in Gross should be extended to a different statute that similarly used the formulation because of X. I argued that the Court should not follow Gross because Gross had been wrong about what because means. Some might regard such an argument as quixotic; I preferred to think of it as audacious.

The core of my argument was based on real-world sentences like Example (1) (emphasis added):

(1) The Constitution abhors clas­sifications based on race, not only because those classifications can harm favored races or are based on illegitimate motives, but also because every time the gov­ernment places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.

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But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I…

IWantYouBobDylanI 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?

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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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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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Syntactic ambiguity (Part 3 of Scalia and Garner on Statutory Interpretation)

[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.

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