By Regina Salmons
Regina Salmons is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English.
Sometimes in law, as in life, it is not what we say, but how we say it. In the matters of the legal world and within the courtroom, the precise wording of statements can make all the difference. Where one places a comma can be the difference between winning and losing a case, and the order in which one structures a sentence can determine the outcome of someone’s life. Yet at the same time, how one reads the meaning of a text is often dependent on who is reading it, as interpretations often vary.
This past November, the Supreme Court heard Lockhart v. United States, a case that saw an entire argument revolving around whether or not the last clause of a sentence containing multiple modified the preceding clauses. Lockhart was undeniably guilty of possessing child pornography—a crime to which he had pleaded guilty. Lockhart had also previously been convicted for the first-degree sexual abuse of his girlfriend of the time. Because of his prior conviction, his presentence report judged that he be subjected to a ten year mandatory minimum sentence enhancement. The enhancement was based on the wording of a crime “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor,” which the judgment decided encompassed the abuse of his adult girlfriend. 
Lockhart argued that the enhancement sentence did not apply, as the wording says a crime relating to abuse involving a minor, and his previous offense in question did not involve a minor. Yet unfortunately for him, the majority of the court did not interpret the language in the same way as he did. Siding with the lower courts, the majority ruled based on the precedent of Barnhart v. Thomas, which supports the modern canon of statutory interpretation: “a limiting clause or phrase… should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun that it immediately follows.”  Under this reading, “abusive sexual conduct” is the only clause modified by “involving a minor,” and so the previous clauses are left independent of such a modification.
Barnhart v. Thomas and now the application of language in Lockhart v. United States both rest upon the fact the wording can only be limited by the modifier if it reinforces the context of the overarching statement. In both cases, the majority judges found the language to fulfill such a standard, yet Justice Kagan, accompanied by Justice Breyer, dissented from such an interpretation of the law.
Lockhart is undeniably guilty, yet his sentence and remainder of life relies on the understanding of English grammar and the intentions of a string of a few words. Kagan used modern language and examples to explain why she found the modifier to be extremely persuasive in Lockhart’s favor: “Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet ‘an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.’ You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast—not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander.”  She argued that the modifying phrase is understood by “everyone” to apply to each term in the preceding list, not only the last.
Her argument depended on the fact that it employs the common understanding of the role of modifiers. She argued that it was the ordinary way that we speak and communicate, and thus the law should be interpreted similarly in Lockhart’s sentencing. Whether or not you prefer her use of common grammar or the reading that the court implied, the significance is clear.
The wording and language used in laws and legal documents needs to be incredibly concise and particular to avoid any ambiguity. In the case of Lockhart v. United States, the language was not clear in regards to the extent of the modifier, as it was a case that had been seen by many lower courts before reaching the Supreme Court. It is questionable whether the courts ruled correctly in the technical terms of the English language or the understanding of its meaning by its people.
However, even with the best writers and what could be argued to be the most clearly worded sentences, disagreements over the meanings of those sentences can arise. As modern day speakers of the English language, we are tasked with the heavy burden of picking our words carefully, as lawmakers or lawyers can spend months debating the meaning of just a few. Such words determine for some of us how we are to spend the remainder of our lives; whether or not you believe Lockhart should be held accountable to the enhancement of his sentence does not deter from the fact that the wording was vague enough that a debate and conversation of the magnitude of a national scale could be waged over essentially three words.
 Lockhart v. United States. 34. Supreme Court. 1 Mar. 2016. Web.
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