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Scalia Weighs In On One of the Most Important Questions in the World of White-Collar Criminal Defense, by Matt Kaiser, Above The Law Blog


Justice Scalia is not a man known for mild opinions. I hear the other Justices have voted him ‘least likely to say ‘this is a question on which reasonable minds could disagree.’

While a conservative, Scalia has done good work for those charged in criminal cases in recent years. He’s been good on Fourth Amendment issues, the Confrontation Clause, and federal sentencing.

And, at oral argument recently, on what is perhaps the most significant criminal justice issue of the day — how broadly we should interpret criminal statutes — Scalia has turned his considerable intellect again in a defense-friendly way.

How, you ask?

Whether to interpret a criminal statute broadly or narrowly is an intricate question. The ‘Rule of Lenity says that criminal statutes should be interpreted narrowly. Yet courts often read in a meta-‘Rule of Lenity’ that says that the Rule of Lenity itself should be interpreted narrowly.

Moreover, judicial review of the scope of a criminal statute is tricky. There are thousands of federal criminal statutes on the books and Congress makes more every year. About 95% of the time, people charged with federal crimes plead guilty. Courts are highly resistant to litigate the meaning and breadth of a federal criminal statute before trial, which means that challenges to the interpretation of a statute are possible in a very small number of cases.

What that means is that prosecutors’ interpretations of federal statutes are highly unlikely to be meaningfully challenged. And, when they are, generally they are interpreted broadly. . . .