Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Scalia stands up for the little guy

Today the Supreme Court decided a statutory interpretation case involving bankruptcy law that turns more or less on the meaning of the word "applicable."  Sexy, sexy stuff.  At the risk of boring our reader(s), let me briefly explain the issue: whether an individual in bankruptcy can deduct from his disposable income—that is, the amount he's presumed to have available to pay creditors -- an amount for the ownership costs of his car, even if he owns his car outright and has no car payments.

In Justice Kagen's first published opinion, the pro-business Roberts Court predictably sided with the creditor—a big, bad credit card company—by interpreting the Bankruptcy Code to more or less incorporate an IRS regulation that makes clear that taxpayers may not take a deduction for ownership costs unless they have car payments to make. 

Only one Justice had the courage to stand up and dissent on behalf of the poor debtor:  Justice Scalia.  He interpreted "applicable" so that simply owning a car would qualify the debtor to deduct the specified amount from his or her disposable income.  To the charge that his interpretation rendered the word "applicable" superfluous, Scalia responded, "The canon against superfluity is not a canon against verbosity."  Just another example of a judge using the canons of statutory interpretation to get his preferred result.

Of course I'm being facetious.  I don't think this is evidence that Scalia cares about the little guy, particularly, or that either he or Kagen were perverting the canons to get their "preferred result. " But just remember this case the next time you read a story about how the Supreme Court always decides "business cases" in favor of businesses.  I posit that most of them are just like this one—statutory interpretation cases that come down to judicial idiosyncrasy—not judicial ideology.

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