Tuesday’s big moment, then, arrives when Scalia casts aside the musty canons and tosses a new idea on the table: the rule of lenity, which dictates that an ambiguous criminal law should be resolved in favor of the defendant. After Ann O’Connell, counsel for the government, concedes that “the canons of interpretation don’t get anybody 100 percent of the way there,” Scalia pounces.
“I agree!” he says with a Yoda-like head tilt. “And what I worry about is the rule of lenity. You have these dueling canons, and you have a rule that when the government sends somebody to jail for 10 years, it has to cross sharp corners. It has to dot every i and cross every t. It has to be clear!”
Scalia pauses. From either end of the bench, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan lean forward to watch him speak. Nino still has a few surprises left in him.
“We’ve been discussing dueling canons and so forth,” he continues. “My goodness! I have no assurance what the right answer is. But I think that somebody could read this and think that it means what the petitioner says it means. And if that’s the case, it seems to me the rule of lenity comes into play. That’s what concerns me most about this case—not the dueling canons.”
Justice Stephen Breyer perks up visibly. Scalia has spent much of his career arguing for canons and textualism and strict constructionism. Breyer has spent most of his career fighting against all that, in favor of more flexible, contextual, practical mode of interpretation. Suddenly, Scalia appears to be joining his team. Breyer decides to see how far he can push his frequent sparring partner.
“So if we are absolutely at equipoise,” Breyer says, “before turning to the rule of lenity, I would like your comment”—he grins slightly—“on my temptation”—his grin becomes a smile—“to say, at least here”—Scalia turns to watch—“that the legislative history helps.”
“I knew you were going to say that!” Scalia roars with a chortle, and the courtroom explodes into laughter. “I knew it!”
Caught in between Scalia and Breyer, Justice Clarence Thomas chuckles, too. Thomas and Scalia, of course, despise legislative history and absolutely refuse to use it. But Breyer boldly presses on, citing a congressional committee report stating that the law in question was designed to enhance a defendant’s penalty “if they had a prior conviction for sexual abuse of a minor.”
“And that’s what the drafter would have been looking at,” Breyer continues, “when working with the staff of the committee when trying to translate general intentions of senators and representatives into actual language. And I think it’s not contrary to popular belief to say that senators and representatives do hire staff to do such things and do not sit there with a pen and pencil thinking, where does the or go?”
Breyer’s thoughtful defense of legislative history receives a verbal middle finger from Scalia.
“You don’t think Congress can leave it to its staff to decide what a statute means, do you?” Scalia asks O’Connell, beaming like a naughty little boy who isn’t really sorry he broke the fine china. “Isn’t legislative power nondelegable?”
Friday, November 06, 2015
Scalia v. Breyer in criminal case
And Justice Scalia is again supporting the defendant, this time in a statutory construction issue. From Slate: