Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lockhart v. United States: Title VII and the Battle of the Statutory Canons

Although not an EEO case, the recent Supreme Court decision in Lockhart v. United States, 14-8358 (U.S. Mar. 1, 2016), focuses on general principles of statutory interpretation and therefore may be of interest to readers of this blog. Touted as "the battle of the statutory canons," the case pitted the "rule of the last antecedent" in one corner against the "series-qualifier principle" in the opposite corner.

The statutory provision at issue in Lockhart subjects a defendant convicted of child pornography charges to an enhanced sentence if he also has a "prior conviction ... under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." The issue before the Court was whether the phrase "involving a minor or ward" modifies all three items in the series preceding it or modifies merely the last item. Because the defendant had previously been convicted of sexual abuse with his then-53-year-old girlfriend, he would not be subject to the enhanced sentencing provision if the phrase "involving a minor or ward" only applied to the last item in the series.

In a 6-2 decision, the Court relied on the rule of the last antecedent, among other considerations, in concluding that the phrase "involving a minor or ward" applies only to the last item in the series, thus subjecting the defendant to the mandatory enhanced sentence.

Out of curiosity, I skimmed through Title VII to look for similar constructions, and I located about two dozen examples before I'd decided I'd had enough. In almost all of them, it was clear to me based on commonsensical considerations of context and other factors that the proper statutory construction rule in that particular instance was not the one advanced by the Lockhart majority but the one advanced by the dissent. 

For example: "hiring hall or hiring office which procures employees ..." (42 U.S.C. § 2000e(e)); "trade, traffic, commerce, transportation, transmission, or communication among the several States" (§ 2000e(g)); "activity, business, or industry in commerce" (§ 2000e(h)); "terms, conditions, or privileges of employment" (§ 2000e-2(a)(1)); "to exclude or to expel from its membership" (§ 2000e-2(c)(1)); "employer, labor organization, joint labor-management committee, or employment agency with respect to ..." (§ 2000e-2(f)); "investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter" (§ 2000e-3(a)).

So at least based on this brief survey of Title VII, the evidence seems to support the dissent's conclusion that the series-qualifier principle more accurately reflects the "ordinary understanding of how English works."

If you're itching for more on these two rules of statutory construction, check out this post at LAWnLinguistics, complete with fancy diagrams.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.