Crazy Interpretations: The Plain Meaning Rule Isn’t so Plain

Gavel And Legal BookLaws are written with the same kinds of words that everyone else uses. But, there always seems to be a problem with interpreting those normal words into making a fair decision whenever applied to a specific case. In fact, there is an entire discipline of law dedicated to properly decoding the intent of the law whenever it becomes unclear how it should be applied.

This discipline is known as statutory interpretation, and one of the most entertaining aspects of this subject is the plain meaning rule. According to representatives of Bern Ripka LLP, the rule states that otherwise-relevant information shouldn’t enter consideration when the text is plain or unambiguous.

Can Bank Law Apply to Fish?

In the case of Yates vs. The United States, a commercial fishing vessel was caught violating federal conservation regulations by catching undersized fish – segregated from the rest of the catch. The boat captain then ordered crew members to throw the fish overboard when federal agents departed.

The court was tasked to decide whether Chapter 18, Section 1519 of the U.S.C. applied to the case. According to the Section, a person can impede a federal investigation when they:

“knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence”

Many observers would say that the Section does apply because of the term “tangible object”, which should include fish. But, five Justices voted no, against the four that voted yes. Why? Don’t fish count as tangible objects anymore?

No One Foresaw the Fish

The answer lies in the understanding of the plain meaning rule, and the Title of Section 1519. Chapter 18 U.S. Code Section 1519 is also known as “Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy”.

Applying the plain meaning rule, it’s clear that the Section was not meant as an across the board ban on the destruction of physical evidence – only for objects that contained records. The term tangible object isn’t dispositive in relation to fish because the clarity of a statutory term “is determined [not only] by reference to the language itself, [but also by] the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.”

In this case, the boat captain wasn’t technically impeding a federal investigation because the fish weren’t what lawmakers had in mind while penning Section 1519.

This is the kind of terminology maze that the legal world has to maneuver through on a daily basis. Fortunately, only lawyers have to worry about all that, allowing the rest of us to keep the meaning of words as simple as possible.