Category Archives: Language mavens

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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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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“Arbitrarily reverse-engineering meaning”

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:

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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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Prescriptivist Statutory Interpretation? (Part 2 of Scalia and Garner on Statutory Interpretation)

[Part 1 here.]

For most people who consult Scalia and Garner’s new book on statutory interpretation (I say “consult” because few people are going to read it straight through), Bryan Garner’s name on the cover will lend additional credibility to the book’s discussion of grammar and linguistic meaning. After all, he’s the Guru of Writing and Language. But to what extent is his background and expertise actually relevant to the process of interpreting a text whose meaning is disputed? My answer to that question is, less than you might think.

Let me start by focusing here on the relevance of Garner’s grammar-related work to the kinds of grammatical issues that come up in interpreting statutes; I’ll save for a later post my examination of his work as a lexicographer and how that relates to resolving disputes over word meaning.

Most of Garner’s work is devoted to giving advice about how to write, and most of it deals with topics such as these, which are irrelevant to statutory interpretation: