Legislative interpretation: why it matters!
Laws, like television shows, require interpretation. This is why John Roberts was dangerously misleading in his confirmation hearings for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court when he described a judge’s job as “calling balls and strikes.” A judge is often simultaneously setting the boundaries of the strike zone and defining the lines the runners need to follow. Also the shape of the bat and the distance from the mound. Well, I hope you get the point.
I’m going to start with a classic example, a debate between Lon Fuller and H.L.A. Hart (here’s a brief article by a smart guy on the subject) about a law that bans “vehicles in the park.” Law professors have used this example to teach legislative interpretation for decades, because it forces us to confront questions of intent versus the letter of the law, how we decide what the letter of the law is, and how we deal when there was “no intent,” which is often the case with privilege. It’s no accident, in other words, that the examples we use to test the rule are often about childcare and disability—no accident because there was likely no intent at all with respect to people who weren’t presently unimpaired adult men.
So: are ambulances allowed in the park? What about baby buggies (updated to strollers)? Wheelchairs? Motorized wheelchairs? If your answers to the last few questions are “yes, obviously,” what about things like Segways or pedicabs in situations where the person being carried is at the present time having no difficulty walking? If you want to distinguish based on need for the device to access the park, then you are adding in a meaning to “vehicles”—“devices that people don’t need to use to access the park”—that’s both not obvious from the face of the statute and not the usual/dictionary definition of “vehicles.” Which is okay! It’s standard legislative interpretation technique!
You might want to inquire into the point of the law. If the legislators were thinking about the potential damage and noise disruption from cars and trucks, then that suggests that any people-powered device might be okay. But they might have been thinking about the loveliness of walking uninterrupted, free from bicyclists and skateboarders as well as motorcycles. The legislators probably just weren’t thinking at all about the needs of people with mobility impairments, plus there’s technological change post-enactment to take into account, which brings us to motorized wheelchairs, Segways, and even bionic legs. We often say “if they had thought about this problem, they would have thought X,” and sometimes that’s persuasive; but often enough the counterfactual is about making the legislators hold our own beliefs and not theirs.
Some people will still insist that the meaning of “vehicle” is transparent and requires no interpretation. Oddly, those people often disagree about the result of the law applied to the stroller! (They generally have to take the stroller with the pedicab or exclude them both.) Relying on dictionaries and other nonspecific sources is also a standard technique: the law is the law, and if you don’t like the results, then get the legislature to change it. (Which, these proponents might continue, the Americans with Disabilities Act did by overriding all laws of this type to the extent they require accommodation of the needs of people who fall within the scope of the ADA; parents with strollers are still out of luck.)
Come now to breastfeeding laws! After well-publicized incidents in which women in public places with their infants, where both adults and infants were welcome, were thrown out or yelled at for breastfeeding, a number of U.S. states passed laws to protect breastfeeding in various ways. (There’s a discussion here, though it actually ignores the point that caught my attention, lumping two different types of laws together.) There are a number of laws that specify that a woman has a right to breastfeed (as opposed to saying that breastfeeding isn’t indecency, which protects her from some kinds of enforcement but allows private businesses to continue to kick breastfeeders out). Many of those right-to-breastfeed laws specify that they apply wherever the mother and child are both allowed to be.
But some just talk about the mother. (Here's a discussion that notes the difference.) Illinois is one of those: “A mother may breastfeed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be ….”
So, does that mean that a venue may categorically ban infants? First, I couldn’t find any actual cases/guidance in my admittedly quick Westlaw trawl, so this is pure law school speculation. Here’s what I think is on balance the better answer—but note that I tend towards “the law is the law, even if it’s stupid” in many cases. It’s easy to add in “and the child is allowed”; other states have done so; if the law only talks about the mother’s right to be in a place, then it overrides general bans on infants that are otherwise perfectly acceptable/enforceable.
But you could get an A on a legislative interpretation exam with the alternate argument: the problem the legislature confronted was of people throwing mothers and infants out of places that mothers and infants were welcome, merely for breastfeeding; the legislature did not consider full infant bans; infant bans are often well-justified (certain areas of hospitals; roller coasters); the law doesn’t create any way of distinguishing a health/safety-related infant ban from one that’s a matter of social nicety, so if we disallow the latter we also invalidate the former; when a venue is willing to ban infants entirely, it’s not discriminating against breastfeeding or offensively treating breastfeeding like an indecent/sexual act, which was the targeted problem. Also, the Illinois law is remarkably badly drafted, as evidence this gem in the same sentence: “a mother considering whether to breastfeed her baby in a place of worship shall comport her behavior with the norms appropriate in that place of worship.” This is either unconstitutional or meaningless or both; the legislature was not being very careful in its language. Given all this, we should read the law to mean that it’s legitimate to ban infants, but not legitimate to ban breastfeeding once you allow infants.
There are responses to these arguments too. For example: the legislature can rely on people not to take their infants into areas of hospitals where infection is a big risk or on roller coasters; we might want to avoid pretextual claims that infants are banned when people are really upset about breastfeeding; infant bans are part of an antichild culture that contributes to difficulties breastfeeding, so the law does target them too; if infant bans are actually ok then the legislature can amend the law to add in a provision about the child.
If you wonder why judicial philosophy is such a big deal in U.S. politics, it’s not just because of abortion and gun control. It’s about issues like this, and it’s about whether you’ll be forced to arbitrate any dispute you have with your employer with an arbitrator who’s paid by your employer and whose rules tilt towards the employer, instead of suing; and it’s about whether the fact that the FDA pre-approves drugs means that you can’t win a lawsuit against the manufacturer when the drug harms you. All those things and many more require courts to interpret laws that some people will tell you obviously mean one thing and others will tell you obviously mean the opposite.