Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

US Supreme Court rules on grammar

  1. Feb 21, 2008 #1

    BobG

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    After a prolonged dispute that progressed through US District Court and the 11th Circuit Court all the way to the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court finally settles whether Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of “any” should take precedence over ejusdem generis and noscitur a sociis. (Ali vs Federal Bureau of Prisons)



    The US Supreme Court ruled the dictionary definition of “any” took precedence over ejusdem generis and noscitur a sociis by a 5-4 decision.

    That’s really disappointing just because it's fun to use the terms “ejusdem generis” and “noscitur a sociis” in any argument, let alone a US Supreme Court case. Striking down noscitur a sociis is a particularly bitter decision as it could almost be applied to humans and their associates (as in “birds of a feather flock together”).

    On the other hand, next time someone in my house complains that there isn’t any butter, I’ll have an excellent excuse to avoid journeying from grocery store to grocery store in a driving rain on some futile quest.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 21, 2008 #2
    Thanks for this BobG. I was a little rusty on my latin legalese, so I looked it up.

    Illegal explanations.

    If I toss in boats then they are not all land-based. Does that mean that airplanes would then be covered. I think not, since all of the vehicles in my expanded list hug the surface of the earth. The list automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, and airplanes and other motor-powered vehicles would not include tractors since none of the others are farm implements. Indeed, you can take any list of things, augment it by one, and ask which is the one that doesn't belong. We have been living under the thumb of this ridiculous precept all these years? No wonder the Supreme Court acted.


    Edit: Now that I think of it, the explaination is a poor one. Indeed all the vehicles listed are land-based, but not all of them are transportation. Tractors are not land-based transportation. Thus airplanes are covered after all.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2008
  4. Feb 21, 2008 #3
    sounds like preventive damage
     
  5. Feb 21, 2008 #4

    Moonbear

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Oh, don't get your hopes up. Afterall, you only have two possible replies to that. One reply is "sure there is," to which they'll prompt you to spill your guts that it's at the grocery store, and will then make you go move it from the grocery store to the fridge. The only other reply is, "Oh, that's too bad," and holding them to their first declaration that there isn't any butter so there's no point driving any where to get it, at which time they'll determine there isn't any room in the bed for you that night. :biggrin:

    You do have to appreciate a Supreme Court ruling that relies on such wisdom as, "When my wife says there isn't any butter..." though. :rofl:
     
  6. Feb 21, 2008 #5

    G01

    User Avatar
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    Don't let ANYone say that the US ever gets distracted from ANY of the really important issues.

    That just doesn't make ANY sense.
     
  7. Feb 22, 2008 #6

    BobG

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    This has to be one of the stranger cases I've ever heard the US Supreme Court accept.

    You'd think a claim for $177 reimbursement for property lost during a move from one prison to another would be settled in small claims court rather than the US Supreme Court. You'd almost think it probably would have been cheaper to just pay the guy than run this through the entire appeals process to finally be heard by the US Supreme Court.

    And the government's claim was bizarre, to say the least. The law they're debating covers government officials assessing taxes on items brought into the country (the guys that always ask if you have anything to declare when you go through the border check point or customs). If the item should be taxed, but the person bringing it in doesn't have the money to pay the tax, the item's confiscated until they do pay the taxes. In some cases, the person bringing in the item doesn't have the money and doesn't foresee coming up with the money any time soon, in which case they tend to whine, "Well, can you at least pay me for the item? I can't pay the taxes and if I'm going to lose my possessions, then you ought to at least pay me for them." Not so! The goal is to tax certain items brought into the country, not provide a ready market for second-hand crap at tax payer expense ..... and I think the exception to reimbursing them is perfectly valid.

    How anyone could apply this law to a case where the Bureau of Prisons lost property during a move from Atlanta to Kentucy is way beyond me. It's also a little unsettling once you get past laughing that this case ever made it to the US Supreme Court in the first place. You start to feel that the government can take (or lose) your property any time they feel, for any reason at all, and that there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

    I'll bet all those guys that have been crying that a Federal Income Tax is unconstitutional will jump all over this. Their entire argument is based on trivialities such as the fact that the same version of the amendment wasn't voted on by all of the states approving it. Some versions had commas in places that other versions didn't and so on. There was no single version of the amendment that received approval from 3/4 of the states. Of course, you could also say this about every amendment that was approved before the advent of word processors. We could abolish over 20 amendments to the Constitution using the same painful analysis the US Supreme Court used in this case.
     
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2008
  8. Feb 22, 2008 #7

    Moonbear

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Your tax dollars at work. :frown:

    I'm surprised the Supreme Court even took the case. They must have been having a slow day and thought it would be entertaining. Or maybe they get many cases arguing technicalities of language/grammar like that and thought it worthwhile to take one where they could finally lay down a precedent to guide future decisions.

    By the way, I would side with the decision that a precise definition and not an ambiguous contextual definition should be used in interpreting legal documents. While the justice's wife may be sloppy in her language usage, and he's known her long enough to know what she means, there should be a higher requirement for written, legally binding documents where every word should be considered carefully.
     
  9. Feb 23, 2008 #8
    It's really not that surprising that the Supreme Court accepted this case. It had to do with the imposition of sovereign immunity on the actions of government employees, ie., under what circumstances government employees can be sued for acts they perform in the course of their official duties. This case would thus be extremely important to thousands of federal law enforcement officers and the many agencies that employ them. The Court could have just allowed the decision of the 11th Circuit to stand, but the syllabus mentioned a disagreement between the circuit courts on the issue. Apparently, there were other courts that had decided the question differently, and the Supreme Court decided to step in and resolve it once and for all.

    This case perfectly exemplifies the current conflict between the conservative and liberal wings on the court when it comes to interpreting acts of Congress and the Constitution. The conservative majority here is saying that it will not consider context in the interpretation of federal law, and that in the absence of a clear indication from Congress of what it's intention is, the Court will interpret statutory language according to its ordinary meaning. If Congress intended a different meaning, it's up to Congress to draft or amend the statute to make that clear. The liberal minority is calling for a broader, more contextual view of the statute which allows the Court to take into account what Congress' overall purpose of the statute was. Depending on what your view of all this is, the majority's decision makes sense if you think that the legislative branch should be the one to make laws and make it's intentions completely clear. On the other hand, some believe that the Court is improperly abandoning its special role as the ultimate interpreter of what federal law means. This conflict has been continuing for a long time. Thanks to Bush's appointments of Roberts and Alito, the conservatives appear to have the upper hand for now.
     
  10. Oct 20, 2009 #9
    Ruling is important due to abuse by taxing authorities

    In California, the FTB has recently began going after taxpayer's who sold what they thought was QSBS - Qualified Small business stock. The law CR&TC Section 18152.5 makes use of the term "any" period both to say the requirements are met by a corporation if such and such is true and then uses the same "any" period to say it will not be treated as meeting the same requirements if an additional condition is met.

    The FTB has claimed this is ambiguous and then constructed the law to its advantage. A construction cannot take place unless their is ambiguity, so broad based meaning of terms like "any" actually is relevant.

    However, what do you do when two broad based terms can be at odds with each other.

    For instance... when requirements are met under condition one, and can be met for a long period under condition two, but can also broadly be divided into pieces and claimed that portions of otherwise qualifying period of time does not qualify...

    Any ideas on how it would be resolved when taxpayer's stock qualifies for each and every any period of time under paragraph (1) of Code, but later paragraph (9) for instance can be used to make corporation be deemed not to meet requirements for any period.

    What is legal concept called that deals with this and..

    How would it be resolved?

    Thanks,

    Mike
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?



Similar Discussions: US Supreme Court rules on grammar
  1. Grammar (Replies: 65)

  2. U.S. Supreme Court (Replies: 5)

Loading...