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Statutory Interpretation: The Rule Of The Last Antecedent


The Rule Of The Last Antecedent: When Reading A Statute, A Limiting Clause Or Phrase Should Ordinarily Be Read As Modifying Only The Noun Or Phrase That It Immediately Follows.

Lockhart v U.S

United States Supreme Court

2016 WL 782862

Decided: March 1, 2016

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_StatesSummary: A defendants sentence for possession of child pornography was properly enhanced under 18 U.S.C. 2252(b)(2) based on a prior state conviction for sexual abuse of an adult because the phrase in the statute, involving a minor or a ward modified only the phrase immediately preceding it, “abusive sexual conduct”. Under the rule of the last antecedent, it did not modify all the preceding bases for the enhancement.

Issue: Whether the sentencing enhancement under 18 U.S.C 2252(b)(2) applies to defendants case where defendant was convicted of sexual abuse and the statutes enhancement states that prior convictions related to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or sexual abuse conduct involving a minor or ward

law books openHolding: The Court held that when they interpret statutes that include a list of terms or phrases followed by a limiting clause, they have typically applied and interpretive strategy called the rule of the last antecedent(Barnhart v Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 26, 124 S.Ct. 376. 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003)). The rule provides that a limiting clause or phrase should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that immediately precedes it. The rule reflects the basic intuition that when a modifier appears at the end of a list, it is easier to apply that modifier only to the item directly before it.

Applied here, the last antecedent principle suggests that the phrase involving a minor or ward modifies only the phrase that it immediately follows: abusive sexual conduct.

Facts: Defendant Lockhart pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. 2252(b)(2). Because defendant had a prior conviction for first-degree sexual abuse, his presentence report concluded that he was subject to the 10 year mandatory minimum sentence enhancement provided in 2252(b)(2), which is triggered by prior state convictions for crimes relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.

Section 2252(b)(2) reads in pertinent part:

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Whoever violates, or attempts or conspires to violate 18 USC 2252(a)(4) shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both, but, if such person has a prior convictionunder the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or wardsuch person shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not less than 10 years not more than 20 years.

The United States Supreme Court has held that involving a minor or ward modifies only abusive sexual conduct, the antecedent immediately preceding it.

The District Court applied the mandatory minimum and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The United States Supreme Court held that when they interpret statutes that include a list of terms or phrases followed by a limiting clause, they have typically applied and interpretive strategy called the rule of the last antecedent Applied here, the last antecedent principle suggests that the phrase involving a minor or ward modifies only the phrase that it immediately follows: abusive sexual conduct.

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Legal Analysis: The United States Supreme Court held that any conduct that would qualify as aggravated sexual abuse involving a minor or a ward, or sexual abuse involving a minor or a ward would also qualify as abusive sexual conduct, sexual abuse, and abusive sexual conduct, including these similarities and differences.

It is clear that applying the limiting phrase to all three items would risk running headlong into the rule against superfluity by transforming a list of separate predicates into a set of synonyms describing the same predicate, Bailey v United States, 516 U.S. 137, 146, 116 S.Ct. 501, 133 L.Ed.2d 472 (1995). The Supreme Court concluded that the text and structure of 2252(b)(2) confirm that the provision applies to prior state convictions for sexual abuse and aggravated sexual abuse, whether or not the convictions involved a minor or ward. The Defendants prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult is encompassed by 2252(b)(2). The judgment of the Court of Appeals, accordingly, is affirmed.


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