Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Strict Constructionism at the DMV

A large segment of the population believes — and possibly our latest Supreme Court nominee would agree — that interpretation of a law should be strictly based on the intent of its authors. Words have meaning, you see, and all you have to do is read the language without introducing any of your own thoughts.

Those true believers should have been in line with me at the motor vehicle registration counter. I was expecting my number to be called, but the woman I was counting on to vacate a spot was disputing the charge for her license tabs.

"How come I just sold a trailer like this and there was no fee?'

The clerk began to explain to her why he'd assessed the correct amount, but the woman insisted, so he offered to look up her earlier transaction.

"But the one you sold was a pop-up camping trailer. It's treated differently, because it has living quarters."

"So does this one," she said. "It's the same kind."

"But you said it was a motorcycle trailer."

"It is a motorcycle trailer."

"Do you know what a motorcycle trailer is? It hauls motorcycles. This is a camp trailer."

"Well, it's pulled by a motorcycle."

"We don't care what pulls it. We go by the size and function."

She wasn't giving up. "You pull it with a motorcycle. What else would it be but a motorcycle trailer?"

"When you said 'motorcycle trailer,' I thought you meant a motorcycle trailer." He could see she wasn't getting the source of confusion, so, being quite nice about it, he restarted her paperwork without the fee. A truly civil servant.

So here's a question for Judge Roberts: "What is the meaning of the term livestock trailer? Is it a trailer pulled by oxen, as it surely was in the 18th Century. Or is it a trailer loaded with livestock? And what does the answer tell us about judges who find the meaning of laws in words alone?

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