Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Tenth Circuit applies the art of sentence diagramming

The Tenth Circuit recently interpreted a statute so confusing that the court decided to diagram some of its language. In United States v. Rentz, the court observed that “Few statutes have proven as enigmatic as 18 U.S.C. § 924(c),” which concerns crimes committed while using a firearm. Puzzling over what the statute’s modifiers mean, the court used the same device some of us learned in grade school—setting out a clear diagram of how words relate to one another grammatically. The court thus reached enough clarity to affirm the district court’s decision. Still, the court stated, “Even now plenty of hard questions [about the statute’s meaning] remain.”

My conclusions: 1) The art of diagramming sentences should be revived, and 2) Congress should focus more on clear drafting.

Hat tip: Brian Glassman


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