12 December 2012

The interpretation principle, or, when is a taco considered a sandwich?

This is one of a series of posts about Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner's Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. For similar posts, click here.

I recently received Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner's Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. The book is about textualism, and identifies 70 principles, canons of construction, and falsities regarding statutory interpretation.

As a part of reading and reviewing the book, I'm planning to write a series of blog posts covering at least some of the more common canons to include a brief explanation and some examples. Hopefully the process will allow me (and you) to better understand how judges interpret the law. In some cases I'll use the examples that Scalia and Garner did; when circumstances permit, I'll use examples I found on my own. To begin, we'll start with one of the most fundamental principles, which on one hand might seem obvious, but on the other hand, requires a little bit of understanding.

1. Interpretation Principle: Every application of a text to particular circumstances entails interpretation (p. 53). This is best described by Frederick Pollock, as quoted by Scalia and Garner:
Given a rule of law that [those] conditions generically described as A produce a certain legal liability or other consequence X, does the specific fact or group of facts n fall within the genus A?
Law students will recognize this as a form of IRAC: Issue, Rule of law, Application, Conclusion.

Panera Bread signed a lease with a shopping mall that included a clause that prohibited the mall from leasing  space to other restaurants that sold "sandwiches." The mall later leased space to Qdoba, who sold  burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. The question here is whether the shopping mall violated the lease, and turned on the meaning of "sandwich" which was not defined in the lease.

Here's what the court said:
Given that the term "sandwiches" is not ambiguous and the Lease does not provide a definition of it, this court applies the ordinary meaning of the word. 3 New Webster Third International Dictionary describes a "sandwich" as "two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer (as of meat, cheese, or savory mixture) spread between them." Merriam-Webster, 2002. Under this definition and as dictated by common sense, this court finds that the term "sandwich" is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans. As such, there is no viable legal basis for barring [the mall] from leasing to [Qdoba].
White City Shopping Ctr., LP v. PR Rests., LLC, 2006 Mass. Super. LEXIS 544, at *8 (2006). The key principle here is that when a definition is not provided, courts should provide the ordinary meaning. Typically, the courts will look to dictionaries (and often, dictionaries that are contemporary to when the text was written).

You might wonder: Is it fair that Panera Bread can contract with a mall to exclude other restaurants from selling sandwiches? To a textualist, whether or not it is fair is not part of the equation in deciding the legal issue. The case hinges on the ordinary meaning of sandwich, period.

What do you think? Do you consider burritos, tacos, or quesadillas to be sandwiches?
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