Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Return of the Posner

Posner criticized the Scalia/Garner book on the interpretation of legal texts.
Garner responded.
Posner now issues this short reply here.  I like it:

Garner says that what I think are mistakes in the book’s description of cases are merely the result of the authors’ decision to “exclude other factors besides the canon” (statutory principle) that each case illustrates “because the examples are there merely to show how each particular canon works” and so the fact “that a given court considered other factors besides the canon is quite irrelevant to our purposes.” That is untrue. When they say that a court “perversely held that roosters are not ‘animals’” they are saying that a court erred by failing to follow a dictionary definition; in fact the court said that roosters are animals, but then gave reasons why this was not dispositive, reasons Scalia and Garner ignore. Garner now says “it would be very hard to find examples in which a single canon was the sole basis for the decision.” Precisely! The authors aren’t going to pin themselves down to a canon that might generate a result they don’t like. They want to play with 57 canons, many of them as I pointed out not textual.
Their approach is typified by the example Garner gives in his letter of a sign that reads “no person may bring a vehicle into the park.” Early in the book the authors say that an ordinance that excludes ambulances from the prohibition “is not the ordinance that the city council adopted,” for an ambulance is a vehicle. Hundreds of pages later they retract that conclusion, citing the common law defense of necessity. Garner in his letter calls this retraction an example of “nuance,” an appeal to a “mitigating doctrine.” I call it having a pocketful of nontextual interpretive principles to draw on whenever textual originalism produces dumb results, such as barring ambulances on rescue missions from parks because the dictionary says an ambulance is a vehicle.

I particularly like this paragraph:

He says I cite only six examples of cases that the book misrepresents. True, but I had space limitations. So here’s a seventh, and I will be glad to furnish others on demand. The authors summarize a well-known opinion by Holmes (McBoyle v. United States) tersely: “’automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails’”—held not to apply to an airplane.” They use this to illustrate the statutory principle called eiusdem generis, which is Latin for “of the same kind” and means that in a list of specifics that ends with a general term (for example, “cats, dogs, and other animals”) the general term should be interpreted to be similar to the listed terms (so “animals” would not include human beings). The statute under which McBoyle was convicted criminalized the transportation in interstate commerce of a “motor vehicle” known to have been stolen. Scalia and Garner do not mention “motor vehicle,” but consider only whether an airplane (the stolen property that McBoyle had transported across state lines) is the same kind of thing as an automobile, an automobile truck, etc. For Holmes the question was whether an airplane is a “motor vehicle,” and while he alluded to without naming the principle of eiusdem generis, his principal ground for reversing McBoyle’s conviction was unrelated to that principle; it was that in ordinary speech an airplane is not a motor vehicle and that a conviction for a poorly defined crime should not be allowed. He also mentioned legislative history (anathema to Scalia and Garner) in support of his interpretation. All this Scalia and Garner ignore. 


Anonymous said...

Team Posner

Anonymous said...

Posner is out in left field here. He still doesn't realize that the cases are simply to illustrate the canons using real-world examples, and are not to demonstrate the superiority of the textualist approach. And his absurd, ad hominen intro is bizarre. How about engaging ONE of Whelan's substantive criticisms rather than mocking him?