Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ali v. Bureau of Prisons (U.S. Supreme Ct. - Jan. 22, 2008)

You gotta love this opinion. For at least two different reasons.

First, it's not your usual 5-4. Sure, in general, the conservatives are in the majority and the liberals are in dissent. Nothing surprising there.

But unlike the usual case, where Kennedy's the swing vote, this time the swing vote that adds the fifth vote to the four conservatives (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito) is . . . . Ginsberg.

Ginsberg?! That's right. Ginsberg. Kennedy dissents, with Stevens, Breyer, and Souter on board. But not Ruth Bader. Hence the 5-4 the other way.

Ain't gonna see that often.

Second, it's a neat case for statutory interpretation types. Or even just people who like grammar a lot. The question is all about how you interpret the phrase "any law enforcement officer" in a particular statute. Does that phrase really mean any law enforement officer is immune from suit? The conservatives (and Ginsberg) say, sure, any means any, and the statute is unambiguous. Whereas the liberals (and Kennedy) go the other way. And, in the process, discuss -- and debate -- a ton of different guides to statutory interpretation. All of which, of course, have latin descriptions: ejusdem generis, noscitur a sociis, etc. Cool beans. And important even beyond this particular case.

Plus, Justice Breyer also writes a separate dissent (joined by Stevens) that makes a very interesting argument, and essentially argues -- among other fascinating points -- that rather than being crystal clear, the word "any" often is actually meaningless. Or at least inherently limited by its context. You can summarize this point in a great line he uses, in which he says: "When I call out to my wife, 'There isn’t any butter,' I do not mean, 'There isn’t any butter in town.'" Rather, he argues, "the context makes clear to her that I am talking about the contents of our refrigerator. That is to say, it is context, not a dictionary, that sets the boundaries of time, place, and circumstance within which words such as 'any' will apply."

Sure, this argument has its origin at least as far back as an early opinion by Chief Justice Marshall. But it's never been made as neatly as Justice Breyer makes it. So that's interesting as well.

So some good stuff in here. And not too long. Worth the read.

CONFLICT DISCLOSURE: I was one of the counsel for the petitioner (the side that lost) in this one, and was on the briefs as well as at counsel's table at oral argument. I rarely post about cases in which I've been involved, but given the makeup of the majority, as well as the contents of the opinions, I thought an exception was justified. I've tried to describe the opinion as neutrally as possible -- but, obviously, you can be the judge of whether I've successfully done so. And, in case you're wondering: Sure, we knew we might well lose some or all of the conservatives. But had no idea whatsoever that we'd lose them plus Ginsberg. No clue.