Jurisprudence - What does the law mean?

I’m in the middle of finals in my second-to-last semester of law school, and a couple of topics have come up in mind that I am interested in working out by way of discussion.

I would like to discuss judicial interpretation - focusing mainly on statutory law, but touching on the Constitution as well.

I’m not sure that I put this topic in the right forum - the Court is within the Beltway - but from the perspective I’m coming from, it’s not Politics either - and it’s not a Trivial Pursuit unless you’re staggeringly jaded.

The very specific and precise meaning of words is, in a sense, the whole of our legal system. When someone is put on trial for breaking the law, the meaning of each and every word of that law is relevant to that trial. Each element of the offense is defined in the statute - and in a very general way, every trial is essentially an argument between two lawyers as to what those words mean.

Now, the obvious answer is to use the plain meaning of the words to interpret the law. That sounds good, but presents it’s own problems.

Let’s say there’s a law that states “…all rackets, bats, lacrosse sticks and hockey sticks should be stored in the designated sports shed…”

Should we interpret that to include nocturnal flying mammals? Of course not, Congress couldn’t possibly have meant that when they wrote that statute. So what rules do we use to parse it? “Common sense” is the obvious answer, but we’re talking about the law here. Ambiguity is not a good thing.

So what do you use to determine what the law means? What’s the most important factor?

Is it the literal meaning of the words of the text?
Is it what Congress intended that specifc the law to mean?
Is it the purpose of the law a whole?

I read a SCOTUS decision from a few years ago, concerning the question “Is a fish a tangible object”, in the context of a particular statute.

I won’t get into the details (you can google “the fish case” to read all about it), but the Court ruled that the answer was No - a fish is not a tangible object. And I agree with their interpretation of that law.

I don’t know what else to say here, I just wanted to start an interesting discussion.

To continue:

If the most important touchstone is the literal meaning of the words - that implies that Congress actually spent the time choosing their words carefully.

If the most important touchstone is what they intended - how do you figure that out without a crystal ball?

If the purpose of the law as a whole is the most relevant touchstone, isn’t that getting into the realm of making it mean what you want it to mean?

I recongize that I have no control over any other posters on this site. But I would politely request that this conversation not become overly political.

As a side not, “the fish case” is a good example of what I love about statutory interpretation SCOTUS cases - it’s when you see the strangest of bedfellows, in terms of opinions.

In the fish case (Yates v. United States), the plurality opinion was written by Ginsburg, and joined by Roberts, Breyer and Sotomayor. Alito wrote a concurrence, and Kagan wrote the dissent, joined by Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas.

Kagan cited Dr. Seuss in her dissent. See Generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish (1960).

Fantastic thread. Will respond when I have enough time. Thanks for posting.

I think the answer is very fluid. Which side are you representing? You may very well finding yourself on both sides of this argument. I don’t think you can find a position that will prevail 100% of the time.

Of course. A basic review of cases will show that it’s not just the advocates finding themselves on both sides on interpretation - it’s the Justices, too.

I’d like to break down your point that Congress writes bills. Many bills are written by lobbying firms. In this case, every word is previewed, reviewed and approved. I think Congress members and committees have fewer resources to write laws.
The concept of writing new laws intrigues me. I see lobbying firms that push state and local bills all over the country. Currently it looks like there are a ton of bills for consideration regarding “gun sanctuary” laws. We’ve seen similar things with abortion.

Do you need to know how the actual text of the law was prepared, to state that this law was written to be taken literally according to it’s text and then find another law that should be open to interpretation of terms used based upon how that law came to be?

Same one that finance campaigns, right?

Courts often take the heat for interpreting a statute a certain way, but legislature always seem to dodge responsibility for enacting ambiguous statutes to begin with.

Courts have to clean up legislators’ messes, all the time, because most legislators are ■■■■■■■ stupid, did not go to law school, and have an agenda that does not involve clarity in the law. “Legislative ambiguity” is more of a problem than “judicial activism.”

There’s a argument for interpreting statutes entirely literally - even if the results are absurd - just to force Congress to deal with clarifying it.

You’re not wrong. You’re coming from a very Public choice perspective, but you’re not wrong.

But the question is, where do we go from here?

Sometimes it’s necessary.

…but the other side is - how fast does Congress function?

How many issues has Congress just never dealt with?

Should we hold our entire system hostage to the inactivity of Congress?

This is where Judges have to weigh the practical considerations they are not supposed to. I think many decide that unless they address a glaring ambiguity or omission in the law, it will not be addressed, so they take that step when they may know in their heart of hearts it is not appropriate.

I think there may have been some of that going with Kennedy and Obergefell, or pretty much any Justice ever (except for maybe Warren, a true believer) when it comes to substantive due process.

I disagree with this. There are many reasons not to interpret statutes entirely literally. Not the least of which that language changes over time.

At least at the SCOTUS level, no one gets to tell them what they’re “supposed” to do.

Again, I don’t disagree. Going back to the fish case - that’s my new favorite reference - the relevant statute was part of Sarbanes-Oxley, and was clearly intended to criminalize the shredding of corporate documents. It was passed in the wake of the Enron/Arthur Anderson scandal.

But the text of the statute made it a felony to destroy “…documents, records, or any tangible objects” - and applying that to a case of a fisherman catching underweight fish, and then throwing them back after he got caught to destroy the evidence - is a difficult stretch.

This case is ringing a bell now. It’s a great example.

County me in the camp who says, no, absolutely not, fish are not tangible objects given the overall intent of the statute.

Well, of course. There are always arguments from both sides.

What is it that you disagree with? I haven’t personally endorsed any arguments.

I agree with your conclusion, and I likewise agree with the plurality.

Nevertheless, the dissent is one of my favorite opinions of all time.

I’ll need to revisit it. Is it a Scalia drive-by shooting?