Tag Archives: statutory interpretation

Statutory Interpretation Case Decided Today

Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Terry v. United States, interpreting the First Step Act.

Scotusblog commentary is here and begins as follows:

Justices reject sentencing reductions for some crack-cocaine offenders

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that people convicted of certain low-level crack-cocaine offenses are not eligible for sentencing reductions under the First Step Act, a 2018 law that made some criminal-justice reforms retroactive. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the court in Terry v. United States.

In my view, the most interesting thing about the Court’s opinions is Justice Sotomayor’s lengthy footnote explaining that she refuses to join Part I (i.e., the facts and background section of the opinion!) because “it includes an unnecessary, incomplete, and sanitized history of the 100-to-1 ratio [for crack versus powder cocaine sentences].” The footnote is noteworthy both for its frank acknowledgment of the racial implications of the ratio and because of how rare it is for individual Justices to refuse to join Part I of a statutory interpretation opinion. Indeed, Justice Sotomayor’s refusal calls to mind another memorable Part I in a statutory interpretation case that two majority-opinion-joining Justices refused to sign onto: Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion in Flood v. Kuhn, the baseball case that famously began with a Part I that was essentially an Ode to Baseball. Thomas’s Part I in Terry v. United States is no Ode to the 100-to-1 ratio, but it joins Justice Blackmun’s Part I in Flood as a rare example of a background section that offended sufficiently to prompt judicial distancing.

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Legislation News

Court limits definition of “violent felony” in federal gun-possession penalty


A fractured Supreme Court on Thursday narrowed the scope of a key phrase in the Armed Career Criminal Act, ruling that crimes involving recklessness do not count as “violent felonies” for the purpose of triggering a key sentencing enhancement.

Justice Elena Kagan announced the judgment of the court and wrote an opinion that was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Clarence Thomas did not join Kagan’s opinion but concurred in the result. That means that five justices rejected the federal government’s more expansive interpretation of the term “violent felony” and handed a victory to a criminal defendant who argued that the sentencing enhancement did not apply to his conduct.

The case, Borden v. United States, involved a provision of ACCA that imposes a 15-year minimum sentence on anyone convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm if the person has three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony.” The term “violent felony” is defined, in relevant part, as any felony that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Nothing terribly noteworthy in the case. What I was most struck by is the snark level in Justice Kagan’s plurality and Justice Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinions. This is not polite disagreement; it’s vehement, in-your-face disagreement. Unfortunately, this seems to be increasingly par for the course for the Court (in its statutory cases at least). I’ll also just note the plurality’s emphasis on grammar rules — i.e., the fact that the “against another person” phrase modifies the “use of force” phrase. It feels, anecdotally, like the Court is placing more and more emphasis on grammar-based arguments lately.

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Two new statutory interpretation decisions issued today

The Supreme Court today issued two short opinions interpreting two very different statutes:

United States v. Palomar-Santiago (Immigration statutes)

and Territory of Guam v. United States (CERCLA)

Both opinions were unanimous and highly textual in their analysis. Palomar-Santiago, authored by Justice Sotomayor, relied heavily on the use of the word “and” while the Court’s opinion in Guam v. United States opinion, authored by Justice Thomas, relied heavily on the “interlocking language and structure of the relevant text” and other whole act rule type arguments. Justice Thomas’ opinion in Guam v. United States also, notably, invoked the belt-and-suspenders canon that James Brudney and Ethan Leib have written about to reject competing whole act rule (superfluity) arguments.

It’s early, but some analysis and coverage of the opinions can be found here:


Unanimous court revives Guam’s Superfund claim against U.S. Navy

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with Guam in its dispute with the federal government over the cleanup costs of toxic waste on the island. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for a unanimous court just four weeks after oral argument in the case.

Court rejects non-citizen’s challenge to “unlawful re-entry” charge

The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled against a non-U.S. citizen who was contesting his indictment for unlawful re-entry into the country. The case, United States v. Palomar-Santiago, involved Refugio Palomar-Santiago, a Mexican citizen who obtained lawful permanent residency in the United States in 1990. Eight years later, he was deported on the basis of a California conviction for driving under the influence. But after his deportation, the Supreme Court ruled in Leocal v. Ashcroft that, under the relevant federal statute, DUI convictions do not provide grounds for the removal of people like Palomar-Santiago.

The Washington Post:

Supreme Court: Guam can pursue $160M dump cleanup lawsuit

The Supreme Court says the U.S. territory of Guam can pursue a $160 million lawsuit against the federal government over the cost of cleaning up a landfill on the island. The justices on Monday unanimously overturned a lower court decision that had said Guam had waited too long to pursue the claim.

Bloomberg News:

Top Court Revives Guam’s Superfund Cost Claim Against U.S.

Guam may pursue a Superfund cost recovery claim against the federal government for a $160 million landfill cleanup as its action was timely, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday in a significant victory for the territory. In a unanimous decision, the justices reversed a lower court and said Guam isn’t time-barred from pursuing the claim. “We are thrilled with the Court’s decision in favor of Guam today, which paves the way for the United States to pay its fair share for the cleanup of the Ordot Dump,” Latham & Watkins lawyer Greg Garre, representing Guam, said in an email.

Law & Crime:

Supreme Court Justices Again Unanimous Twice in the Same Day

The Supreme Court of the United States handed down two unanimous decisions Monday — making the total a whopping four 9-0 decisions in a week’s time.

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