Comma Law

You've heard the story of the woman who got out of a parking ticket because the parking sign was missing a comma. How often would that really work?

Nancy Greene, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #475

Why was the Obamacare ruling different?

All this may make you wonder about another prominent recent case that went the other way: If the law is supposed to be read the way it was written, then why did the Supreme Court recently uphold a portion of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, based on its intent rather than on a strict, literal meaning of the sentence in question? 

Unlike the parking law which is only a few lines long, Obamacare is a 906-page law. The Supreme Court considered the entire law in deciding what the challenged four words, one subclause, meant. The Supreme Court found that the intent of the law as demonstrated in the rest of the language was to provide insurance to all Americans. The government pointed out that if the subclause was read literally, then fewer people would be able to afford insurance and the entire health care scheme set out in the law would collapse, an absurd result. So, the Supreme Court ruled for the government based on the law’s intent rather than what it actually said. 

So, who wins when a law is poorly written?

The lawyers. Just kidding. But seriously, ambiguity creates litigation. Grammar mistakes give lawyers another argument to support their cases and fight for their clients. These mistakes don’t guarantee a win because sometimes the clear meaning of the law applies as it did for Ms. Cammelleri, and other times the law’s intent carries the day as in the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. 

Does grammar really matter in the law?

Grammar matters. Lawyers tell war stories about winning cases based on points of grammar. Cases can turn on whether a particular phrase applies to a specific clause. So far no one is keeping statistics on how often grammar affects a court’s ruling. Until someone does a comprehensive study, grammar fans will just have to enjoy the occasional case that goes viral. 

This article was written by Nancy Greene, Esquire. Repeatedly told that she’s “not your typical lawyer,” Nancy takes all that fancy legal mumbo-jumbo and demystifies it. Her practice is dedicated to ensuring businesses avoid the legal land mines, including grammar mistakes, that might otherwise destroy them. You can find her on the web at  www.ndglaw.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greenelawfirm, and on Twitter as @NancyDGreene.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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