US Supreme Court Review: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases

US Supreme Court OT2013 logo(This is another post in our series, Looking Back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Term.)

In the first post in this series, I discussed two causation cases in some detail.  In this post, I will more briefly summarize the full set of the Court’s criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term and then offer a few overarching observations.

Here are the cases (excluding habeas corpus decisions):  

Abramski v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 2259: straw purchaser broke law by failing to indicate on firearm purchase form that he was acquiring gun for someone else.

United States v. Apel,  134 S. Ct. 1144: protester broke law by reentering air force base’s designated protest area after being barred from base by commander.

Bond v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2355: assault by defendant on romantic rival did not violate Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act (see earlier post here).

Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881: defendant drug trafficker not subject to 20-year mandatory minimum for his role in overdose death (see earlier post here).

United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405: defendant’s prior misdemeanor conviction for causing bodily injury disqualified him from possessing firearms.

Loughrin v. United States, 573 U.S. __ (No. 13-316): defendant violated federal bank fraud statute by passing forged checks at Target store.

Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710: possessor of child pornography not liable in restitution for full amount of victim’s projected future losses (see earlier post here).

Robers v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1854: fraud defendant not permitted to offset restitution obligation to victim bank by full market value of collateral at the time it was transferred to bank.

Rosemond v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1240: in order to be liable under aiding and abetting theory for violating 18 U.S.C. §924(c) (using or carrying a gun in connection with a drug trafficking crime), defendant must have advance knowledge that confederate will carry gun.

Now, a few overarching observations:

  • The government fared somewhat better than defendants, but not by so much as to reflect a reflexive pro-prosecution bias.  By my count, the government won a clear victory in five cases, the defendant won a clear victory in two cases, and the Court delivered a mixed result in two cases.
  • Statutory cases are not as marked by the rigid ideological divides that we see in some areas of constitutional criminal law, such as the Eighth Amendment.  Out of the nine cases listed above, only two were 5-4 decisions, and one of those, Paroline, did not break along conventional lines (conservative Alito joined three liberal Justices and swing voter Kennedy to make the slim majority).  Only Abramski featured the classic 5-4 ideological breakdown — perhaps a reflection of the especially ideologically charged nature of gun-ownership issues.
  • Justice Kagan seemed to play an especially prominent role in this area of the Court’s docket.  Not only only was she on the winning side in each of the nine cases (joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer), but she also wrote more majority opinions (three) than any other Justice.  Her opinions strike me as having a distinctly pragmatic, middle-of-the-road bent.  She seems quite attentive to the practical consequences of interpreting statutes one way versus another.
  • Although each of the cases dealt with the interpretation of a specific federal statute, it is interesting how often the Court looked for guidance to general principles of law, as reflected in frequent citations to state-court decisions, treatises, and restatements.  This was an important aspect of the causation cases, as I highlighted in my previous post.  It could also be seen clearly in Rosemond, the aiding and abetting case, and to a lesser extent in Castleman, the other gun-ownership case.
  • Less prominent than you might expect in these statutory interpretation cases were the traditional source materials used to discern congressional intent: committee reports, floor statements, amendment histories, and the like.  Nowadays, the Court seems more oriented to “ordinary meaning,” canons of construction, policy considerations, and those general principles of law.
  • The Rule of Lenity, a longstanding canon indicating that ambiguous criminal statutes should be interpreted in favor of the defendant, continues its mercurial career on the Court.  Sometimes, it seems to play a pivotal role in the Court’s analysis (e.g., Burrage).  Other times, it seems oddly absent or is given rather short shrift (e.g., Castleman).  Justice Scalia may be the Rule’s strongest friend on the Court, and he and Kagan have a lively disagreement over its applicability in Abramski.

In my next post, I will discuss one additional area of debate in the statutory interpretation cases: to what extent should the Court strive to interpret statutes so as to make them effective at achieving their apparent aims?

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

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