Words Mean Things—Though Sometimes, It’s Hard to Figure Out Exactly What
By Ken K. Gourdin
The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which includes Utah in its jurisdiction, was faced with the prospect of untangling a mass of prepositional phrases in an enhancement statute in order to determine whether a Utah murder defendant who was charged with federal crimes for committing his offenses on a Utah indian reservation was eligible for the enhanced penalties the statute provides for using a firearm. See here, last accessed Feburary 8, 2015: http://www.sltrib.com/news/2150382-155/appeals-court-limits-possible-sentence-enhancement?fullpage=1.
Another commenter said, in essence, “murder is murder,” implying that the defendant somehow was trying to escape overall responsibility for his crimes (rather than simply escaping the enhancement), and invoked former President Bill Clinton’s famous argument that “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is.” I responded:
With due respect, did you read the article? The issue wasn’t whether the defendant murdered somebody; he was charged with murder, and that charge stands undisturbed. Rather, the issue was whether the crimes with which he was charged were eligible for enhanced sentences because he used a firearm.
And, while I agree with you that laws, contracts, and other similar documents often are needlessly complex, like it or not, words do mean things: one who intends a certain meaning should use a word consistent with that meaning. If he does not, he should not be able to argue later that he actually meant [y], even though the word he used means [x], especially when someone else will be unfairly disadvantaged by his post hoc redefinition.
Which is more, if you were the defendant in this case, you would want (indeed, you would demand, not to mention being constitutionally entitled to) the same thing he got: the most zealous, most vigorous defense possible within the bounds of law and legal ethics. (And I say that as one of the most pro-police, pro-prosecution people who happens to frequent this corner of cyberspace, a fact for which I have taken plenty of heat.)