The Supreme Court Encounters Dueling Canons and Limiting Clauses

Consider this sentence:

Please bring home cheese, bread, and wine from Zupan’s.

What does this sentence mean? Is it a request to bring home cheese and bread from any store, and wine from Zupan’s? Or does it mean to purchase cheese, bread, and wine all from Zupan’s? I suspect most people would opt for the second option because it makes sense to get the cheese and bread at Zupan’s if you’re going there for wine.

How about this sentence:

She likes parrots, alligators, and puppies with soft fur.

What does this sentence mean? That she likes her parrots, alligators and puppies all to have soft fur? Or she likes parrots and alligators, and also puppies that have soft fur?  I suspect most people would choose the second option because of the biological unlikelihood of finding parrots and alligators with soft fur.

Thus, in the first sentence, the limiting clause at the end of the sentence applied to each item in the series. In the second sentence, the limiting clause applied to only the last item in the series.

These sentences illustrate the problem that arises when a series is followed by a limiting clause. The conundrum is whether the limiting clause applies to every item in the series, or only the last item.

In Lockhart v. United States, issued this week, the Supreme Court of the United States addressed this problem. The Court was asked to determine the meaning of a criminal statute providing an enhanced penalty for persons having a prior conviction for “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward * * * .”

The question was whether the limiting phrase “involving a minor or ward” applied to each of the preceding phrases (“aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct”), or to only the last in the series (“abusive sexual conduct”).

Before reading further, decide for yourself. Done? Let’s move on.

The Court split 6-2 on the issue. Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinion held that the limiting clause applied to only the last item in the series. Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion interpreted the statute to mean that the limiting clause applied to each of the three items in the series.

The majority relied on the “rule of the last antecedent.” That rule provides that where a list of terms or phrases is followed by a limiting clause, the limiting clause should be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that immediately precedes it. The dissent relied on a different (and conflicting) canon of statutory interpretation: the series-qualifier canon. That canon provides that where there is a parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a modifier at the end of the list normally applies to the entire series.

Both opinions make good points and a reasonable person could read the statute to have either meaning. The real lesson in Lockhart is that the careful writer should avoid the problem by making clear whether the limiting clause applies to each item in the series, or to only the last item.

For those interested in learning more, a copy of the decision can be downloaded here.

Lockhart v United States

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Filed under Exemplary Writing, Grammar

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