Davies on the Secret Meaning of Intent

March 9th, 2011

Ross Davies, proprietor of the Green Bag, and one of my favorite profs at GMU posted an interesting piece on SSRN titled The Secret Meaning of Intent. Here is the abstract:

At the Supreme Court (and elsewhere) there has long been a wide range of views about the proper way to go about interpreting statutes. From time to time, some of those views are blessed with knowledgeable, articulate, and outgoing proponents. These days the debate is perhaps most vigorous, and certainly most entertaining, between Justice Antonin “Plain Meaning” Scalia and Justice Stephen “Legislative Intent” Breyer. Almost a century ago, the debaters were Justices William R. Day and Joseph McKenna, but with a twist: in one important case they were joined in the debate (in secret) by Congressman James R. Mann, who had some secret legislative history of his own to share.

What role should the author of a piece of legislation play in the interpretation of that bill after it was enacted? Davies relays an interesting tale about Rep. James Mann, the namesake and author of the Mann Act, who wrote a letter to Justice who adopted Mann’s view of the Mann Act in Caminetti v. US.

My dear Mr. Justice Day:–I hope it is entirely proper for me to congratulate you upon your opinion and thedecision of the Supreme Court in the white slave cases. While I have never thought thatthe writer of that Act was the one best qualified to construe the meaning of the Act andhence have refrained from any expression of opinion concerning my intent and thoughtwhen I wrote the language of the white slave law, yet you have construed the law the wayI intended when I very carefully considered and wrote it, and while I think there probablywas no public statement to that effect, yet in private statements made on the floor of the House before the bill was passed, I explained to a good many Members the bill was goingfully as far as is stated in your valuable opinion.Yours very sincerely,James R. Mann10

Can you imagine? And Justice Day replied!

My dear Mr. Mann:I beg to thank you for your kind note of the 29th instant, received this morning.I think it is not improper for me to express to you the appreciation that I have of yourview of the recent opinion of the Supreme Court in construing the so-called “White SlaveAct”. While of course we could not know, except from the language used, the purposeand intent of the framers of the law, the confirmation which you give the construction ofthe act is very gratifying indeed. It was very good of you to send me your kind letter.With best wishes, I am, with high regard,Very sincerely yours,William R. Day11

Very cool.