A Sharp Divide at the Supreme Court Over a One-Letter Word


“Ordinary meaning and literal meaning are two different things,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in a 22-page response to the 16-page majority opinion. “And judges interpreting statutes should follow ordinary meaning, not literal meaning.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinion, which took a different view of how to understand the article “a.”

“The word ‘a’ is not a one-size-fits-all word,” he wrote, conceding that “a car dealership that promises to ship ‘a car’ to a customer has not fulfilled its obligation if it sends the customer one car part at a time.”

“By contrast, it is common to submit ‘a job application’ by sending a résumé first and then references as they are available,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “When the final reference arrives, the applicant has submitted ‘a job application.’ Similarly, an author might submit chapters of a novel to an editor one at a time, as they are ready. Upon submission of the final chapter, the author undoubtedly has submitted ‘a manuscript.’”

Justice Gorsuch responded that the court’s job was to unearth the meaning of the statute before it.

“If, in the process of discerning that meaning, we happen to consult grammar and dictionary definitions — along with statutory structure and history — we do so because the rules that govern language often inform how ordinary people understand the rules that govern them,” he wrote.

He added that it was only fair to hold the government to the standards it imposes on ordinary people. “If the government finds filling out forms a chore, it has good company,” he wrote. “The world is awash in forms, and rarely do agencies afford individuals the same latitude in completing them that the government seeks for itself today.”

“At one level,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, “today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that. But words are how the law constrains power.”



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