That's the situation for Avondale Lockhart, whose case was heard Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lockhart was caught in a federal sting and pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography. He had a previous state conviction for attempted rape, a form of sexual abuse.
According to federal law, Lockhart gets a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence for the child pornography if he had a prior state conviction “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor.” The crucial words here are “involving a minor.” Lockhart says they apply to the whole sentence. Because his prior conviction was for attempted rape of a woman, not a minor, the law doesn't apply to him. The government says “involving a minor” just refers to the last part of the sentence, “abusive sexual conduct,” not to what came before. It thinks Lockhart should get the 10 years.
The upshot is that language is fuzzy and imperfect -- and we need a common-sense solution to that problem, not abstract rules. The court may spend a lot of time talking canons, but it shouldn’t. Statutory purpose is the best way to resolve difficult statutory questions. Lockhart shouldn't get the enhancement under the law -- no matter how much you detest his crimes.