California Chief Justice on Bumble Bees as Fish (and Statutory Interpretation More Broadly)

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Wednesday, the California Supreme Court denied review in this case (for more on the lower court case, see this post by Jonathan Adler and this one by Ilya Somin); Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, joined by Justices Carol Corrigan and Joshua Groban:

Our denial of a petition for review does not communicate any particular view regarding the merits of the issues presented in the petition. Thus, all should understand that our decision to deny review in this case is not an endorsement (nor is it a rejection) of the statutory analysis undertaken by the Court of Appeal, which determined that bumble bees, a nonaquatic invertebrate, are susceptible to being listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (Fish & G. Code, § 2050 et seq.; CESA) because that statute applies to fish (Fish & G. Code, §§ 2062, 2067 & 2068), and “invertebrates” are included within what the Court of Appeal deemed to be the applicable definition of “fish” (id., § 45) [“Fish” means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals -EV]. (Almond Alliance of California v. Fish & Game Com. (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 337, 341.)

Yet if experience is any guide, our decision not to order review will be misconstrued by some as an affirmative determination by this court that under the law, bumble bees are fish. A better-informed observer might ask: How can the court pass up this opportunity to review the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the Fish and Game Code, which seems so contrary to common knowledge that bumble bees are not a type of fish? Doesn’t this clear disconnect necessarily amount to “an important question of law” (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.500(b)(1)) warranting this court’s intervention, because the Legislature could not possibly have intended such a result?

Were things always that simple. Careful analysis of a statute to divine legislative intent can sometimes yield results that might seem surprising at first blush. Courts engaged in this task have interpreted “less” as “more” (Amalgamated Trans. Loc. 1309 v. Laidlaw Tran. Ser. (9th Cir. 2006) 435 F.3d 1140, 1146) and “unlawful” as “lawful.” (Scurto v. LeBlanc (La. 1938) 184 So. 567, 574). Long ago, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the “seas” referenced in one statute required no water at all (Murray’s Lessee v. Baker (1818) 16 US 541, 545); quite recently, it determined that a fish is not a “tangible object” (United States v. Yates (2015) 574 US 528, 536).

These kinds of seemingly illogical outcomes can in fact best capture the enacting legislature’s intent in a variety of circumstances. A statute may be construed in a manner that goes beyond the literal meaning of its text to avoid an absurd result the legislature could not possibly have contemplated. Sometimes courts perceive a scrivener’s error or typo that must be corrected to vindicate the intent behind a measure. Or the context surrounding the use of a word or phrase within a statute can convey that it carries an unusual meaning, peculiar to that law. The Court of Appeal below concluded that the interpretive question before it fell into the last of these categories, with the consequence that bumble bees should indeed be regarded as “fish” under the CESA.

Even if the Court of Appeal arrived at what might superficially seem like a counterintuitive result, that alone does not establish that it erred. Moreover, our decision not to order review here does not prevent us from considering the CESA’s reach in some future case, at which time we may agree or disagree with the Court of Appeal’s analysis. In the interim, the Legislature is in a position to make whatever statutory amendments it may regard as necessary or useful. For although it may not be exceptional for a court to determine that a particular word or phrase within a statute carries a meaning that deviates from common parlance or understanding, such decisions also can provide notice to legislators that some clarification may be in order.

Justice Patricia Guerrero would have granted review. Thanks to Stephen Newman at Stroock for the pointer.

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