US Supreme Court rules on grammar

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In summary: I don't think so.In summary, the US Supreme Court ruled that the dictionary definition of "any" takes precedence over ejusdem generis and noscitur a sociis.
  • #1


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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. (

Jusitce Thomas said:
The phrase “any other law enforcement officer” suggests a broad meaning. Ibid. (emphasis added). We have previously noted that “[r]ead naturally, the word ‘any’ has an expansive meaning, that is, ‘one or some indiscriminately of whatever kind.’” United States v. Gonzales, 520 U. S. 1, 5 (1997) (quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 97 (1976)). In Gonzales, we considered a provision that imposed an additional sentence for firearms used in federal drug trafficking crimes and provided that such additional sentence shall not be concurrent with “any other term of imprisonment.” 520 U. S., at 4 (quoting 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1) (1994 ed.) (emphasis deleted)). Notwithstanding the subsection’s initial reference to federal drug trafficking crimes, we held that the expansive word “any” and the absence of restrictive language left “no basis in the text for limiting” the phrase“any other term of imprisonment” to federal sentences.520 U. S., at 5.

Justice Kennedy said:
The ejusdem generis canon provides that, where a seemingly broad clause constitutes a residual phrase, it must be controlled by, and defined with reference to, the “enumerated categories . . . which are recited just before it,” so that the clause encompasses only objects similar in nature. Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U. S. 105, 115 (2001). The words “any other law enforcement officer” immediately follow the statute’s reference to “officer of customs or excise,” as well as the first clause’s reference to the assessment of tax and customs duties. 28 U. S. C. §2680(c). …..
The canon’s applicability, however, is not limited to those statutes that include a laundry list of items. See, e.g., Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Train Dispatchers, 499 U. S. 117, 129 (1991) (“[W]hen a general term follows a specific one, the general term should be understood as a reference to subjects akin to the one with specific enumeration”). In addition, ejusdem generis is often invoked in conjunction with the interpretative canon noscitur a sociis, which provides that words are to be “‘known by their companions.’” Washington State Dept. of Social and Health Servs. v. Guardianship Estate of Keffeler, 537 U. S. 371, 384 (2003) (quoting Gutierrez, supra, at 255).

Justice Breyer said:
When I call out to my wife, “There isn’t any butter,” I do not mean, “There isn’t any butter in town.” The context makes clear to her that I am talking about the contents of our refrigerator. That is to say, it is context, not a dictionary, that sets the boundaries of time, place, and circumstance within which words such as “any” will apply. See United States v. Palmer, 3 Wheat. 610, 631 (1818) (Marshall, C. J.) (“[G]eneral words,” such as the word “‘any’,” must “be limited” in their application “to those objects to which the legislature intended to apply them”); Small v. United States, 544 U. S. 385, 388 (2005) (“The word ‘any’ considered alone cannot answer” the question “whether the statutory reference ‘convicted in any court’ includes a conviction entered in a foreign court”); Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, 541 U. S. 125, 132 (2004) (“‘[A]ny’” means “different things depending upon the setting”); United States v. Alvarez-Sanchez, 511 U. S. 350, 357 (1994)

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.
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  • #2
Thanks for this BobG. I was a little rusty on my latin legalese, so I looked it up. said:
Ejusdem Generis (eh-youse-dem generous) v adj. Latin for "of the same kind," used to interpret loosely written statutes. Where a law lists specific classes of persons or things and then refers to them in general, the general statements only apply to the same kind of persons or things specifically listed. Example: if a law refers to automobiles, trucks, tractors, motorcycles and other motor-powered vehicles, "vehicles" would not include airplanes, since the list was of land-based transportation." [Broken]

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 explanation 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.
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  • #3
sounds like preventive damage
  • #4
BobG said:
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.

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:
  • #5
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.
  • #6
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.
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  • #7
BobG said:
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.

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.
  • #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.
  • #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?



What is the significance of the US Supreme Court ruling on grammar?

The US Supreme Court ruling on grammar is significant because it clarifies and establishes the proper rules and usage of grammar in legal documents and proceedings. This helps to ensure consistency and accuracy in the interpretation and application of laws.

What specific areas of grammar are covered by the US Supreme Court ruling?

The US Supreme Court ruling on grammar covers various areas of grammar, including punctuation, capitalization, verb tense, subject-verb agreement, and use of pronouns. It also addresses proper citation and formatting of legal citations.

How does the US Supreme Court enforce its ruling on grammar?

The US Supreme Court does not have a specific enforcement mechanism for its ruling on grammar. However, the ruling serves as a precedent for lower courts to follow in their decisions and for lawyers to adhere to in their legal briefs and arguments.

What impact does the US Supreme Court ruling on grammar have on legal writing?

The US Supreme Court ruling on grammar can have a significant impact on legal writing by setting a standard for clarity, consistency, and precision in language. It also emphasizes the importance of grammar in conveying legal arguments effectively and accurately.

How does the US Supreme Court consider evolving language and grammar rules in its ruling?

The US Supreme Court considers evolving language and grammar rules in its ruling by examining the meaning and intent of the language used in a law or legal document. It also takes into account the context and history of the language and its current usage in society. However, the court ultimately relies on the established rules of grammar in its interpretation and application of the law.

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