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Noah Feldman

Whereas, the Supreme Court Rules for Stuffy Language

You might think you understand a law, but legal context is different.
Can I get the CliffsNotes?

Can I get the CliffsNotes?

Photographer: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Should laws be understood based on the way people speak? Or should they be interpreted according to technical rules of statutory construction, so that law becomes a specialized language game all its own? In a decision issued Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted, 6-2, for the second option. The case, Lockhart v. U.S., promises to be a classic. The court’s breakdown was about jurisprudence, not partisan ideology. And the issue was, remarkably enough, dangling modifiers.

Rather than reminding you what a dangling modifier is and why you should despise it, let me give you an example from the dissent, by Justice Elena Kagan. “Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet ‘an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie,’” Kagan wrote. The dangling modifier is the phrase “involved with the new Star Wars movie.”