Statutory Interpretation for Biologists

Tongue no doubt firmly in cheek, a biologist suggests that the Florida legislature accidentally legislated celibacy this week.

Among (many) other things, the statute in question says that

A person may not:

Knowingly engage in any sexual conduct or sexual contact with an animal;

(In its infinite wisdom, the Florida Legislature had never before the current moment gotten around to legislating on this important subject.)

People are animals, hence sex with humans must be banned, right?

Any blog post that makes fun of this year’s unusually dire Florida Legislature is OK with me, but I have to put in a few words for the law here, even at the price of spoiling the joke.

Yes, it’s time to roll out Nix v. Heddon, 149 U.S. 304 (1893), in which the Supreme Court of the United States had to decide whether at tomato is a fruit or a vegetable for purposes of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883. There were good arguments for ‘fruit’: after all, to a biologist, a tomato is clearly a fruit. But the Supreme Court made short work of that claim:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

In short, in figuring out legislative intent in the absence of a definition in the statute itself, courts look to the ordinary, common, meaning of words and not their scientific meaning unless something in the context suggests otherwise. In SB 344, it’s pretty clear that when the Florida legislature — yes, even this year’s model — says “animals” it is not referring to us nor even to itself.

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6 Responses to Statutory Interpretation for Biologists

  1. Of course, you also have to read “Knowingly engage in any sexual conduct or sexual contact with an animal” as “Knowingly engage in [any sexual conduct or sexual contact] with an animal”, rather than “Knowingly engage in [any sexual conduct] or [sexual contact with an animal]”.


  2. Adam Bradley says:

    They should perhaps have used Rhode Island’s law as a model–it’s probably not any clearer, but it’s at least more fun to read:

    Every person who shall be convicted of the abominable and detestable crime against nature, with any beast, shall be imprisoned not exceeding twenty (20) years nor less than seven (7) years.

  3. Tom says:

    Senor Froomkin,

    I know this is a bit off topic, but are you planning on writing about the Miami-Dade Countywide races? Particularly the Mayor’s race. District 7 Commission seat, which I assume you live in given your awesome and thorough coverage of the CG races, is also up for grabs.

    What are you waiting for?!

    -Just a fan of your analysis.

  4. csrster says:

    Knowing that a tomato is a fruit is science. Knowing not to use it in a fruit salad is wisdom.

  5. James Madison says:

    My wife is an Animal in the sack. Does this mean I am screwed?

  6. Ian says:

    Reminds me of the 2005 Texas constitutional amendment that could be read to ban all marriages, not just same-sex ones:

    This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

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