Saturday, March 12, 2022

Statutory interpretation, extraneous materials, the rule of lenity: Wooden v United States No 20-5279, March 7, 2022

Judicial approaches to statutory interpretation can be contentious, even among judges of a final appellate court.

This is illustrated in a recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, Wooden v United States, No 20-5279, March 7, 2022.

Here, the phrase “committed on occasions different from one another”, used in relation to a series of offences, was said to be ambiguous when applied to ten burglaries committed by Mr Wooden when he had entered a storage facility on one evening (some two decades ago) and had stolen items from ten different units in that building.

The penalty for which he had been sentenced on the present occasion turned on the number of his previous convictions.

Obviously, the burglaries were not committed simultaneously, but were they committed on different occasions?

One thing courts sometimes do in cases of statutory ambiguity is to have a look at what the legislators were considering and saying when the legislation was proposed.

Is that passing the buck? Should the judicial branch call in the aid of legislators in that way? In this case, Barrett J cautions against judicial resort to extraneous materials: “I would impute to Congress only what can fairly be imputed to it: the words of the statute.”

The ordinary meaning of “occasion” applied here led to the conclusion that the ten burglaries were indeed committed on the one occasion.

But if there had been ambiguity, how should that be resolved? Gorsuch J considers in some detail the “rule of lenity”, which is (here) that an interpretation favourable to a defendant in a criminal case should be preferred. This rule should be applied once ambiguity is identified.

However, Kavanaugh J, criticises Gorsuch J’s reference to the rule of lenity, saying that it should only be applied as a last resort, because there are other interpretive techniques (such as, in contexts other than the present, the presumption of mens rea) that can be used to address ambiguity. This means that the rule of lenity will “rarely if ever” have a role.

In Wooden the Court was unanimous as to the reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

I have previously referred to cases on the rule of lenity: here, and here.