Saturday, June 18, 2022
By now, you've probably heard that a California appellate court deemed bees "fish." In fact, a truth-checking site, Verify.com, even posted a verification of the claim a court ruled a bee a fish as “true.” See https://www.verifythis.com/article/news/verify/courts/bees-are-fish-says-california-court-for-conservation-law/536-ae3e9921-2b54-432e-8c51-66fc3e23eca4. However unusual the idea of a bee as a fish might seem, the opinion from the Third District California Court of Appeal contains some very careful analysis and discussion of long established canons of statutory construction that will be helpful to appellate practitioners. While the court in Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (C093542 May 21, 2022), definitely finessed some points and seemed to reject those canons not helpful to its conclusion, it also gave us an excellent modern discussion of what some canons of construction mean and how they rank against evidence of legislative intent.
The Almond Alliance dispute involved a new California Fish and Game Commission designation of four types of bumble bees as protected "fish" under California's Endangered Species Act, Fish & G. Code § 2050 et seq. The Act "directs the Fish and Game Commission (Commission) to 'establish a list of endangered species and a list of threatened species.'" Almond Alliance, slip op. at 2.
As the court explained, "The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish, as that term is used in the definitions of endangered species in section 2062, threatened species in section 2067, and candidate species . . . in section 2068 of the Act." Id. Slate.com noted: because section 45 of the California Endangered Species Act “defines a fish as a ‘wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals,’” the State and environmental intervenors “argued that the inclusion of the word invertebrate technically allows the act to cover all invertebrates, not just aquatic ones.” Emma Wallenbrock, The Completely Logical Reason Why a Bee Can Be Considered a Fish Now (June 04, 2022) https://slate.com/technology/2022/06/california-endangered-species-bees-fish.html.
The Almond Alliance court first concluded “the Commission has the authority to list an invertebrate as an endangered or threatened species.” Next, the court “consider[ed] whether the Commission’s authority is limited to listing only aquatic invertebrates [and] conclude[d] the answer is, “no.” Slip op. at 2.
At the heart of the court’s decision is the use of legislative history to define “fish” and “invertebrate.” The court begins this analysis by explaining:
Although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish in section 45 is not so limited. We acknowledge the scope of the definition is ambiguous but also recognize we are not interpreting the definition on a blank slate. The legislative history supports the liberal interpretation of the Act (the lens through which we are required to construe the Act) that the Commission may list any invertebrate as an endangered or threatened.
Id. at 2-3.
Over the next 32 pages, the Almond Alliance court supports this conclusion by using a small number of past appellate cases, rejecting some canons of construction, and analyzing a significant amount of legislative language and history. I strongly recommend reading the whole opinion, but I will summarize a few of the canons of construction the court rejected here.
First, the court reminded the parties of the general, underlying rule that courts must apply statutes as written, and “[i]f there is no ambiguity, we presume the lawmakers meant what they said, and we apply the term or phrase in accordance with that meaning.“ Almond Alliance, slip op. at 19. According to the court, “[i]f, however, the statutory terms are ambiguous, then we may resort to extrinsic sources, including the ostensible objects to be achieved and the legislative history.” Id. Thus, “’[o]ur fundamental task . . . is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the statute.’” Id., quoting California Forestry Assn. v. California Fish & Game Commission, 156 Cal. App. 4th 1535, 1544-1545 (2007). “Where . . . the Legislature has provided a technical definition of a word, we construe the term of art in accordance with the technical meaning,” and “we are tasked with liberally construing the Act to effectuate its remedial purpose.” Id. at 19-20.
Second, the court rejected petitioners’ rule against surplusage canon argument that applying the section 45 definition of “fish” as including invertebrates here would write the listing of “amphibians” out of other sections. The court explained the “rle against surplusage . . . provides courts should “avoid, if possible, interpretations that render a part of a statute surplusage.” Id. at 20. Interestingly, the court recognized a “textual tension with the Legislature’s inclusion of amphibian in [some] sections,” but noted: “the rule against surplusage is not, however, an infallible canon. The canon is merely a “guide for ascertaining legislative intent, it is not a command.” Id.
Next, the Almond Alliance court rejected “petitioners’ argument that the noscitur a sociis canon should be applied to read ‘a native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant’ in sections 2062, 2067, and 2068, as encompassing only vertebrate animals.” Id. at 21. The court dismissed this idea because, “[p]lainly, section 45 expressly includes invertebrates within the definition of fish.” Id.
Third, after a lengthy discussion legislative history, the Almond Alliance court considered “petitioners’ suggested application of the noscitur a sociis canon,” which “means ‘a word takes meaning from the company it keeps.’” Id. at 33. Under this rule, a “word of uncertain meaning may be known from its associates and its meaning ‘enlarged or restrained by reference to the object of the whole clause in which it is used.’” Id. “In accordance with this principle of construction, a court will adopt a restrictive meaning of a listed item if acceptance of a more expansive meaning would make other items in the list unnecessary or redundant, or would otherwise make the item markedly dissimilar to the other items in the list.” Id.
The Almond Alliance court “decline[d] to apply the statutory interpretation canon here because:
If we were to apply the noscitur a sociis canon to the term invertebrate in section 45 to limit and restrict the term to aquatic species, as petitioners suggest, we would have to apply that limitation to all items in the list. In other words, we would have to conclude the Commission may list only aquatic mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians as well. Such a conclusion is directly at odds with the Legislature’s approval of the Commission’s listing of a terrestrial mollusk [the bristle snail, a land invertebrate previously protected] and invertebrate as a threatened species. Furthermore, limiting the term to aquatic would require a restrictive rather than liberal interpretation of the Act, which is also directly at odds with our duty to liberally construe the remedial statutes contained therein.
Id. at 33-34.
Based on its review of legislative history and rejection of petitioners’ arguments, the court concluded “the Commission may list any invertebrate,” including a terrestrial invertebrate, as an endangered or threatened species under 2062 and 2067.” Therefore, the Almond Alliance court ruled the Commission could designate a bee as a “fish” for purposes of the Endangered Species Act. Id. at 35. As Emma Wallenbrock noted for Slate: “It’s unclear whether this is a permanent victory, as the agricultural groups may decide to take the case to the California Supreme Court,” but the ruling could be “good news for the bees—and good news for our stomachs, too” because the “Center for Food Safety, states that “one out of every three bites of food we eat [comes] from a crop pollinated by bees.” Wallenbrock, Why a Bee Can Be Considered a Fish Now, https://slate.com/technology/2022/06/california-endangered-species-bees-fish.html. Even if this possible “good news” falls on review, the case certainly provides an interesting discussion of canons of construction.