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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Judge Posner on Justice Scalia's Jurisprudence

This is a review that would finish the career of the academic who authored the book in question, and might even raise questions about scholarly fraud.  Fortunately, Justices really do have "life" tenure!  An excerpt:

OMITTING CONTRARY evidence turns out to be Scalia and Garner’s favorite rhetorical device. Repeatedly they cite cases (both state and federal) as exemplars either of textual originalism or of a disreputable rejection of it, while ignoring critical passages that show the judges neither ignoring text nor tethered to textual originalism. Thus they applaud White City Shopping Center, LP v. PR Restaurants, LLC, a decision that held that the word “sandwiches” in a lease did not include burritos, tacos, or quesadillas, because Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “sandwich” as “two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them.” Scalia and Garner stop there, as if that dictionary reference were the court’s entire decision, thus confirming the use of the dictionary as a guide to the meaning of legal documents. But the court had not stopped with the dictionary.

A company called PR had leased space to operate a sandwich shop in a shopping center. Its lease forbade the shopping center to lease space to another store if more than ten percent of the new store’s sales would be of sandwiches. PR claimed that the shopping center violated the lease when it leased space to a Mexican-style restaurant that planned to sell burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. After noting Merriam-Webster’s definition of sandwich, the court made a series of points in support of its decision against PR that were unrelated to dictionary definitions: “PR has not proffered any evidence that the parties intended the term ‘sandwiches’ to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. As the drafter of the exclusivity clause, PR did not include a definition of ‘sandwiches’ in the lease nor communicate clearly to White City during lease negotiations that it intended to treat burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and sandwiches the same. [PR] was aware that Mexican-style restaurants near the Shopping Center existed which sold burritos, tacos, and quesadillas prior to the execution of the Lease yet, PR made no attempt to define, discuss, and clarify the parties’ understanding of the term ‘sandwiches.’”

Those are more persuasive points than the dictionary’s definition, and as is often the case, the court got the definition wrong. (Scalia and Garner miss this, too.) A sandwich does not have to have two slices of bread; it can have more than two (a club sandwich) and it can have just one (an open-faced sandwich). The slices of bread do not have to be thin, and the layer between them does not have to be thin either. The slices do not have to be slices of bread: a hamburger is regarded as a sandwich, and also a hot dog—and some people regard tacos and burritos as sandwiches, and a quesadilla is even more sandwich-like. Dictionaries are mazes in which judges are soon lost. A dictionary-centered textualism is hopeless.

Yet in further obeisance to the dictionary Scalia and Garner commend a court for having ordered the acquittal of a person who had fired a gun inside a building and been charged with the crime of shooting “from any location into any occupied structure.” They say that the court correctly decided the case (Commonwealth v. McCoy) on the basis of the dictionary definition of “into.” They misread the court’s opinion. The opinion calls the entire expression “from any location into any occupied structure” ambiguous: while “into” implies that the shooter was outside, “from any location” implies that he could be anywhere, and therefore inside. The court went on to decide the case on other grounds.

Scalia and Garner ridicule a decision by the Supreme Court of Kansas (State ex rel. Miller v. Claiborne)that held that cockfighting did not violate the state’s law against cruelty to animals. They say that the court, in defiance of the dictionary, “perversely held that roosters are not ‘animals.’” When I read this, I found it hard to believe that a court would hold that roosters are not animals, so I looked up the case. I discovered that the court had not held that roosters are not animals. It was then that I started reading the other cases cited by Scalia and Garner.

In fact, the court said that “biologically speaking a fowl is an animal,” but that it was not in the class of animals protected by the statute. The court gave a number of reasons for this conclusion—all ignored by Scalia and Garner. One, which was in fact textual originalist, was that “persons of common intelligence” conceived of chickens as birds in contradistinction to animals. But the most cogent reason for the court’s result was that the legislature had passed a statute forbidding cockfighting on Sundays, which implied that it was permissible the rest of the week, and had later repealed the statute, implying that cockfighting was again permissible on any day of the week—and in fact cockfighting was an open and notorious sport in Kansas (to the surprise and disgust of the judges).

Scalia and Garner denounce a court that held, in a case called Braschi v. Stahl Associates Co., that the word “family” in a New York rent-control statute that prohibited a landlord from dispossessing a “member of the deceased tenant’s family who has been living with the tenant” included “a cohabiting nonrelative who had an emotional commitment to the deceased tenant.” The word “family” was undefined in the statute. The case may be right or wrong; what is disturbing is Scalia and Garner’s failure to mention that it was a homosexual couple at a time when homosexual marriage was not recognized in New York, and that the opinion states that the two men had been living together just like spouses and had been accepted as such by their families.

Scalia and Garner applaud a decision (State by Cooper v. French) holding that a refusal to rent a house to an unmarried heterosexual couple did not violate a statute forbidding discrimination in rentals on grounds of “marital status,” a term not defined in the statute. The court relied for this conclusion on another statute, one forbidding fornication. One may doubt whether that statute was the actual motivator of the decision, given the statement in the majority opinion—remarkable for 1990—that “it is simply astonishing to me that the argument is made that the legislature intended to protect fornication and promote a lifestyle which corrodes the institutions which have sustained our civilization, namely, marriage and family life.” This statement is not quoted by Scalia and Garner. (And two sentences later the judge referred, contrary to a Scalia-Garner Diktat, to the statute’s legislative history.)

After the refusal to rent, but before the court’s decision, the anti-discrimination law had been amended to define “marital status” as “whether a person is single, married, remarried, divorced, separated, or a surviving spouse”; and the man and woman who had wanted to rent were both single, a protected marital status under the amended statute. On the page following their discussion of the case, Scalia and Garner, having moved on to another case, remark that “the meaning of an ambiguous provision may change in light of a subsequent enactment … unless the ambiguous provision had already been given an authoritative judicial interpretation.” The original provision— “marital status”—had been undefined and therefore ambiguous, and had not been given an authoritative judicial interpretation. So the amendment, which broadened statutory protection to unmarried persons, provided some basis (though far from conclusive), consistent with textual originalism as understood by Scalia and Garner, for the court’s decision that they denounce. They do not mention this possibility.

UPDATE:  Bryan Garner, Justice Scalia's co-author, replies (in part) here.

http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2012/08/judge-posner-on-justice-scalias-jurisprudence.html

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