“How would you feel if your 10-year prison sentence depended on a dangling modifier? That’s the situation for Avondale Lockhart, whose case was heard Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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.
Lockhart’s lawyers point to a rule of statutory interpretation (sometimes called “canons” to make them sound fancier) that’s known as the “series-qualifier canon.” According to no less an authority than Justice Antonin Scalia, this canon says that “when there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies to the entire series.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the dangling modifier must refer back to the whole list.
The government’s lawyers, however, point to the “last-antecedent canon,” defined by the same Scalia as follows: “A pronoun, relative pronoun, or demonstrative adjective generally refers to the nearest reasonable antecedent.” Applied to the child pornography statute, the phrase “involving a minor” would therefore refer only to “abusive sexual conduct.”
The above excerpt is from an article by American law professor Noah Feldman in BloombergView that perfectly explains how language and law intersect – the very topic this blog of mine seeks to address. The whole article is worth a read (see the link below), but I just couldn’t help but comment and include some excerpts here.
We don’t often stop and break down these connections between law and language (grammar specifically) as profoundly and explicitly as this article does – at least not in law school – but as this case shows, there is an important correlation between the two that has a direct effect on the outcome. Statutory interpretation is all about language, punctuation and meaning, in fact. We just don’t perceive it as such. Personally, I crave the opportunities in my legal practice to get into the nitty gritty of etymology and dangling modifiers and punctuation!
This is a very interesting read for the grammar nerds out there, as well as the legal types and those sinp curious to see how judges arrive at their conclusions. Read the full article for more details on how the case played out and how the Court approached the issue of grammar.
Source: Supreme Court Sits as the Grammar Police – Bloomberg View