“If you think that you can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking of the thing which it is attached to,” legal scholar Thomas Reed Powell is supposed to have said, “then you have a legal mind.”
A dispute coming before the Supreme Court Wednesday can be read as an ordinary statutory question, or as a part of the extraordinary turmoil that, in 2018, surrounds citizens’ right to vote.
I say “ordinary” because construing statutes is the basic work of both lawyers and judges—far more important, year in and year out, than are constitutional issues. It’s how they earn their pay, because the work is both hard and boring. Statutes are written by committees and rewritten by large meetings; are long and complicated; and use specialized language—or ordinary language in surprising ways. Sometimes, in fact, lawmakers make a statute deliberately ambiguous, because they can’t agree on what it should say and want to punt the question to judges. Ask a lawyer what a newly passed statute means, and you are likely to get the answer, “We don’t know—the courts haven’t interpreted it yet.”
The core of Wednesday’s case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, is a dispute over the meaning of the word “result.” The core definition of the word, from the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the effect, consequence, or outcome of some action, process, or design, etc.”—a meaning used, for example, in 1786 by Edmund Burke in his famous speech on the impeachment of Hastings.