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Lenity Outline

Law Outlines > Legislation and Regulation (Admin Law) Outlines

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LENITY a. Canon of last resort. b. Sometimes does very little work. c. Requires a special level of ambiguity---requires the exercise of all other mechanisms of statutory construction first. d. JUSTIFICATIONS i. Notice---Fair warning should be given in language that the common world will understand. ii. Responsibility---Seriousness of criminal coupled with the fact that punishments represent the moral condemnations of the community require that legislatures, and not the courts, should define criminal activity. e. United States v. Bass (Lenity + Federalism Canon) i. Facts: Bass, who had previously been convicted of a felony, was convicted of violation of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, when he was found to be in possession of a gun. There were no allegations that the firearm had been possessed "in commerce or affecting commerce" and the prosecution proceeded on the assumption that the Act banned the possession and receipt of firearms by convicted felons and that no connection with interstate commerce had to be demonstrated. ii. Applicable Statutory Language: "Any person who has been convicted...of a felony...and who receives, possesses, or transports in commerce or affecting commerce...any firearm shall be fined...or imprisoned..." iii. Issue: Whether "in commerce" modifies "receives, possesses" as it does "transports." iv. Holding: The Act is ambiguous---Congress has not plainly and unmistakably made it a federal crime for a convicted felon to simply possess a gun, absent some demonstrated nexus with interstate commerce. This ambiguity, coupled with the fact that the broad reading urged by the government would mark a major inroad into a domain traditionally left to the states, makes lenity applicable. v. PLAIN TEXT

1. A strict textualist reading would mean that "in commerce" only modifies "transports." a. Court says it will not attach significance to the fact that there is no comma after "transports," which the government contends is evidence that Congress intended the phrase to modify "transports" only, because leading grammarians concede that its use is discretionary.

2. The Court said that it was not overwhelmingly clear whether "in commerce" should modify "transports" or all three antecedents, which leads to enough ambiguity to get you to extrinsic canons. vi. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

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