The Roberts Court (Thus Far) and the Rule of Lenity

In their Legislation casebook, William Eskridge, Philip Frickey, and Elizabeth Garrett observe that between 1984 and 2006, the Supreme Court cited the rule of lenity in just over one-fourth of its cases interpreting criminal statutes and agreed with the government’s interpretation in over 60% of those cases. I thought it would be interesting to see how those figures compare to the still-nascent Roberts Court’s cases interpreting criminal statutes. 

Here is what I found:

Between February 2006 (when Justice Alito joined the Court) and the end of June 2009 (Justice Souter’s last day on the Court), the Roberts Court decided twenty-five cases that involved at least some interpretation of a criminal statute. In fourteen of those twenty-five cases (56%), the Court interpreted the statute in a manner that favored the defendant. In only six of the cases did the Court reference the Rule of Lenity—four times in dissent, one time in both the plurality opinion and the concurring opinion providing the fifth vote, and one time in a concurring opinion alone.

The two justices most likely to reference the rule of lenity (i.e., who exhibited the highest rates of reference to the rule over the relevant time period) were Justices Scalia and Stevens, each of whom referenced or joined an opinion referencing the rule in four1 of the twenty-five cases. Justice Ginsburg exhibited the next-highest rate of reference to the rule, invoking it or joining an opinion that invoked it in three2 of the cases; Justice Souter invoked or joined an opinion invoking the rule in two3 of the cases, while Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Thomas did so only once.4 Justices Alito and Kennedy did not reference or join an opinion referencing the rule of lenity in a single case during this time period.

Upshot:  Eskridge’s, Frickey’s, and Garrett’s finding that the rule of lenity plays a role in just over one-fourth of the Court’s criminal statutory cases seems to be holding steady in the Roberts Court. The Court may be shifting ever-so-slightly to a more equal rate of interpretations that favor the government versus the defendant, though it is too early and the sample size is too small to tell. Perhaps most interestingly, the rule of lenity seems to be losing steam as an interpretive aid: In the past several Supreme Court terms, it almost always has been cited by justices in dissent—even in the fourteen cases in which the Roberts Court interpreted the statute to favor the defendant, it rarely (one time) relied on the rule of lenity to reach its result. In light of this trend, it may be worth asking whether this longstanding rule of statutory construction is nearing its deathbed?


1.  See James v. United States (Scalia and Stevens, dissenting); United States v. Santos (Scalia plurality opinion, Stevens concurring opinion); Begay v. United States (Scalia concurring opinion); United States v. Rodriquez (Stevens joining Souter dissenting opinion); United States v. Hayes (Scalia joining Roberts dissent); Dean v. United States (Stevens dissent).

2.  See James (joined dissent), Santos (joined plurality), Rodriquez (joined dissent).

3.  See Santos (joined plurality), Rodriquez (authored dissent).

4.  Justice Breyer authored a dissenting opinion citing the rule in Dean v. United States; Justice Roberts authored a dissenting opinion invoking the rule in Rodriquez; and Justice Thomas joined the relevant portionf of the plurality opinion in Santos.

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1 Response

  1. Ted Sampsell-Jones says:

    I don’t know. The discussion in Santos seems like the strongest statement of the rule of lenity in quite awhile. Especially part III.B.

    Also a prediction: either the rule of lenity or its cousin, the void-for-vagueness doctrine, while play a prominent role in the honest services fraud cases.