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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ordinarily Meanings : Dictionary as Source of Interpretations

Words that are not terms of art and that are not statutorily defined are customarily given their ordinary meanings, often derived from the dictionary. [In the absence of a statutory definition, “we construe a statutory term in accordance with its ordinary or natural meaning.” FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 476 (1994).] Thus, the Court has relied on regular dictionary definitions to interpret the word “marketing” as used in the Plant Variety Protection Act, [Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U.S. 179, 187 (1995).] and the word “principal” as used to modify a taxpayer’s place of business for purposes of an income tax deduction,[Commissioner v. Soliman, 506 U.S. 168, 174 (1993).] and relied on Black’s Law Dictionary for the more specialized meaning of the word “cognizable” as used in the Federal Tort Claims Act to identify certain causes of action.[ FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 476 (1994).]

Of course application of dictionary definitions is not always a clear course;many words have several alternative meanings, and context must guide choice among them. [See, e.g., MCI Tel. Corp. v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 512 U.S. 218, 226-28 (1994) (FCC’s authority to “modify” requirements does not include the authority to make tariff filing optional; aberrant dictionary meaning “to make a basic or important change” is antithetical to the principal meaning of incremental change and is more than the statute can bear); and Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, 541 U.S. 125 (2004) (preemption of state laws that prohibit “any entity” from providing telecommunications service means, in context, “any private entity,” and does not preempt a state law prohibiting local governments from providing such services). If the court views the issue as one of deference to an administrative interpretation, then the agency’s choice of one alternative dictionary definition over another may indicate sufficient “reasonableness.” Smiley v. Citibank (South Dakota), 517 U.S. 735, 744-47 (1996).]

Order Code 97-589,Statutory Interpretation:General Principles and Recent Trends Updated August 31, 2008,Yule Kim,Legislative Attorney,American Law,Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends

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