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.
At The Koncise Drafter, Ken Adams discusses the new Scalia/Garner book, looking at it from the point of view whose main interest is in drafting contracts:
My interest is drafting contracts, not interpreting them. But to stay out of trouble when drafting contracts, it helps to have a decent grasp of how judges ascertain the meaning of contract language. So I’m happy to have the book.
He has his doubts about whether textualism is an appropriate stance with respect to interpreting contracts:
[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.
A new book on statutory interpretation has just been published; it’s titled Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and it’s by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and usage guru Bryan Garner, who previously co-authored Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges.
Scalia’s involvement in this new project isn’t surprising; he’s the leading proponent of “textualism” as a philosophy and method of statutory and constitutional interpretation, and he’s published a book on the subject. Garner’s participation, on the other hand, is something of a surprise. His writings had not previously given any indication that he had any special interest in statutory interpretation. Garner is most widely known as the author a usage manual (he’s actually written two: one on general usage and one legal usage). He has also written books of advice about legal writing and frequently lectures on the subject. And he is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.
It is Garner’s involvement that especially piques my interest. Like me, he is interested in language, and a significant part of the book deals with purely linguistic issues such as syntax and word meaning. But Garner comes at these issues from very different point of view than I do, the main difference being that he is generally hostile to the field of linguistics.