In an episode of the podcast Lexicon Valley hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield present several examples of famous US court cases whose decisions hinged on interpretations of language.
One such case was McBoyle v. United States, which was argued in 1931 before the Supreme Court.
Back story: In 1926 an Illinois man named William McBoyle had arranged for a plane to be stolen and flown to Texas. The authorities caught on and the plane was stopped en route, in Oklahoma.
McBoyle was charged with violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which defined a motor vehicle as "an automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails." McBoyle protested, claiming that theft of a plane did not fall within this definition. After losing two lower court cases, McBoyle prevailed unanimously at the Supreme Court.
Ruling: Writing for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes acknowledged the common-sense understanding that an aircraft is a kind of motor vehicle. But that's not the point: "It is impossible to read words that so carefully enumerate the different forms of motor vehicles and have no reference of any kind to aircraft, as including airplanes." And furthermore, fairness is at stake. "It is reasonable that a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law will do if a certain line is passed. To make the warning fair, so far as possible the line should be clear." Thus and so, the petty thief William McBoyle walked. Theft is bad, but ambiguous legal language is even worse.
Analysis: Writing about this case in 2009, law professor Steven Wisotsky observed that, "[I]n the search for statutory meaning, context trumps literalism." To be frank, this reading puzzles me. From my vantage point it appears that Holmes and his fellow justices privileged literalism over context. Holmes had solid grounds for doing so, but nonetheless he is prizing literalism. Had airplanes been explicitly mentioned in the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, McBoyle would have been found guilty.
All that said, Wisotsky's article goes into great detail about the legal history of this case. Even though I do not believe that context trumps literalism here, perhaps others will be convinced.
Application to Today: Despite my puzzlement at Wisotsky's analysis, I have great admiration for the concept that "context trumps literalism." And I hope the Supreme Court invokes it soon.
In the current Supreme Court term, one key case is King v. Burwell. Buried within its text at one point, the Affordable Care Act notes that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance are available to residents able to avail themselves of "an exchange established by the state." Many states have not established their health exchanges, letting the federal government do so instead. Are their citizens privy to an "exchange established by the state" if their particular state has not actually established such an exchange?
The plaintiffs say no, that residents of these states are ineligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance. Literally speaking, this may be true even though it will result in millions of people losing health insurance. Perhaps this result does not matter from a legal point of view, but it would be unfortunate.
The federal government argues that residents in every state are eligible for these subsidies. Contextually speaking, the foundation of the Affordable Care Act assumes robustly functioning health exchanges. Clauses throughout the text of the statute make this very clear, as does the Congressional record. That record clearly shows that Congress intended subsidies to be available to residents of every state.
One inartful phrase should not invalidate an entire law. Such a result would elevate speciousness to new heights. For more on the high stakes of King v. Burwell, check out the excellent discussion on Slate's Supreme Court podcast Amicus.
As for me, I throw in fully with the government. I've never let literalism trump context before, and this would be a terrible time to start.
This is t