Fun Cases You’ve Never Heard of — Part II
United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. (3 Wheat.) 610 (1818) is almost certainly the best case on statutory interpretation that you can use in the classroom. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it is a maritime case about pirates.
Three Americans were convicted of piracy on the high seas. A federal law provided for capital punishment where someone on the high seas committed “murder or robbery, or any other offense, which, if committed within the body of the country, would, by the laws of the United States, be punishable with death.” The defendants argued that their crime was a robbery (no murder was involved) and that robbery was not a capital crime on land. Thus, they could not be sentenced to death.
Chief Justice Marshall rejected this interpretation. He said that the conditional clause about equivalent punishments on land only applied to offenses other than murder or robbery (partly because of the comma after robbery). If the opposite view was adopted, “robbery on the high seas would escape unpunished.” He also pointed to other sections of the statute that supported the idea that robbery was singled out for special (and harsher) treatment by Congress.
Justice Johnson dissented. He argued: (1) that in doubtful cases courts should construe the scope of the death penalty narrowly; (2) that Congress could not have intended to distinguish robberies on land and sea with different punishments; and (3) that the word “other” made no sense under Marshall’s reading. In other words, Johnson said that Marshall’s version of the statute should have said “or any offense.” By saying “any other offense,” though, Congress was indicating that the conditional clause did modify the phrase “murder or robbery.”
I find that this case is really useful in class. In part, that’s because pirates are involved and thus students are more engaged. It’s also easy to put the disputed phrase on the board and get people to focus on the text and the competing interpretations.