Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Perils of Statutory Interpretation

As someone who has taught legislation and appellate advocacy and worked for both a state legislature and the U.S. Senate, I love a good statutory interpretation case.  Seeing how the advocates and judges approach the statutory text and the legislative intent is always enlightening.  And, the cases can be quite entertaining.  There are some great Supreme Court cases on statutory interpretation, including the famous discussion regarding whether a tomato is a fruit. 

Just last week, a very divided Washington Supreme Court decided a critical issue of statutory interpretation--is a riding lawn mower a motor vehicle under Washington's motor vehicle theft statute?  In 2015, a Washington state resident allegedly attempted to steal a riding lawn mower. He was initially held on theft and criminal trespass charges.  While he was charged with those crimes, he was also was charged with the more serious crime of motor vehicle theft. Naturally, he argued that a riding lawn mower is not a motor vehicle under the statute.  The trial court and intermediate appellate court agreed.  By a 6-3 vote the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed, but in doing so divided sharply on its reasoning and demonstrated the deep divides among judges on how best to interpret statutes.

The lead opinion, which represented the views of three justices on the Court, noted that the motor vehicle theft statute did not define the term "motor vehicle."  Therefore, the justices looked to the dictionary definition of the term, which "could conceivably include riding lawn mowers."  However, because "the legislature . . . explicitly indicated a contrary legislative intent," the Court found that a riding lawn mower was not a motor vehicle for purposes of the statute.

The three concurring justices agreed with the result, but disagreed with the analysis in the lead opinion.  The concurring justices emphasized the need to follow the plain language of the statute if it was unambiguous.  However, they found the term "motor vehicle" in the statute to be ambiguous. In my favorite part of this analysis the concurring justices note, " a riding lawn mower would not meet the definition of a vehicle because it is not the sort of object generally operating on public roads. But see The Straight Story (Walt Disney Pictures 1999)." For those unfamiliar with that particular Disney movie, according to IMDb the movie is about "[a]n old man [who] makes a long journey by lawnmower to mend his relationship with an ill brother." Apparently, the movie has great reviews.  However, this was not enough to render the provision unambiguous.  Thus, the concurring justices turned to the legislative intent.  They agreed with the lead opinion that the legislature did not intent for the motor vehicle theft statute to apply to riding lawn mowers.

In dissent, three justices agreed with the lead opinion that "'a plain reading of the term ['motor vehicle'] could conceivably include a riding lawn mower.'"  Because "it is not inconceivable for the legislature to have intended this result," the dissent would have applied that plain meaning and left it up to the prosecutor to ascertain if a lesser charge should have been filed.

The relatively short opinions provide excellent teaching tools on statutory interpretation.  They clearly set out the legal and policy concerns that are frequently invoked in these types of cases and can serve to remind us that in writing a brief on a statutory interpretation issue we must consider all three approaches, or at least be aware of what approaches the judges in our jurisdiction take.

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