On March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its first decision since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

In what ABC News called “a fitting tribute,” the late Justice’s writing was cited in the opinion and dissent of Lockhart v. United States. The case considered a federal law relating to child pornography, and the 6-2 majority opinion upheld defendant Avondale Lockhart’s 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, as well as Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, invoked the words of the Justice Scalia. USA Today explained, “Each side cited his influential book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, written with Bryan Garner, to bolster its case.” Thomson Reuters published the book in 2012.

The ruling hinged on the interpretation of a federal anti-child pornography law regarding crimes of “aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” The Justices disagreed over how a key part of the phrase – “involving a minor or ward” – should be applied to previous convictions of sexual abuse.

The National Law Journal (subscription required) reported that Justice Sotomayor cited Reading Law’s “rule of the last antecedent” in support of her interpretation “ … to explain that the phrase ‘involving a minor or ward’ describes only a subset of the crimes that require the longer sentence.”

Justice Kagan, however, quoted a different Reading Law passage, regarding a “leading treatise,” to back her position that the phrase should apply to the whole list of crimes.

Slate coverage of the ruling suggested Justice Kagan was channeling Justice Scalia: “Her arguments neatly track his questions at oral arguments, and her opinion is written in a delightfully Scalian manner that seems calculated to draw his vote.”

The impact of Justice Scalia’s vacancy will be an on-going debate as the eight-member Court continues to hear oral arguments and issue decisions. What’s already clear is that even with a bench of eight, Justice Scalia’s influence will still be felt.

For more on Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts click here.


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