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Questionable Uses of Canons of Statutory Interpretation: Why the Supreme Court Erred When it Decided "Any" Only Means "Some"

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 96 Issue: 3 Dated: Spring 2006 Pages: 877-910
Anthony L. Engel
Date Published
34 pages
This article critiques the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Small v. United States (2005), which holds that the Federal unlawful-gun-possession statute's phrase "convicted in any court" refers only to convictions in a domestic, and not foreign, courts.
The statute at issue in this case is 18 U.S.C. section 922. The pertinent part of this section states that it is unlawful for any person "who has been 'convicted in any court' of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year . . . to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." In Small v. United States, the Supreme Court resolved a circuit court split over the issue of whether a defendant's convictions in jurisdictions other than U.S. Federal and State courts could apply under the statute. This article argues that the Supreme Court's decision was incorrect, because in statutory interpretation, a plain language reading, where possible, is preferable to a strained reading that may or may not lead to fairer results for criminal defendants. Unless the statutory language itself is obscure, courts should follow the language as written and permit Congress to change the result if it is not what Congress intended. Although the majority opinion identified concerns about potential dangers in the enforcement of the statute as written, these concerns are overstated and does not warrant a departure from the usual approach (plain language reading) to statutory interpretation. This method of interpreting a law that goes beyond its plain language can have ripple effects in future cases. 235 footnotes


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