Scalia Cites DIckens, Austen, and 1933 Oxford Dictionary to Provide “Original Meaning” of “Accompany” from 1934 Statute

January 13th, 2015

In today’s remarkably short (6 pages!) decision in Whitfield v. United States, Justice Scalia makes an effective use of a contemporary dictionary to give a word its “original meaning”:

Congress enacted the forced-accompaniment provision in 1934 after “an outbreak of bank robberies committed by John Dillinger and others.” Carter v. United States, 530 U. S. 255, 280 (2000) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting). Section 2113 has been amended frequently, but the relevant phrase—“forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person”—has remained unchanged, and so presumptively retains its original meaning. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Ste- vens, 529 U. S. 765, 783, n. 12 (2000).

In 1934, just as today, to “accompany” someone meant to “go with” him. See Oxford English Dictionary 60 (1st ed. 1933) (defining “accompany” as: “To go in company with, to go along with”).

The opinion gets even more “original” when he cites Dickens and Austen.

The word does not, as Whitfield contends, connote movement over a substantial distance. It was, and still is, perfectly natural to speak of accompany- ing someone over a relatively short distance, for example: from one area within a bank “to the vault”;1 “to the altar” at a wedding;2 “up the stairway”;3 or into, out of, or across a room.4 English literature is replete with examples. See, e.g., C. Dickens, David Copperfield 529 (Modern Library ed. 2000) (Uriah “accompanied me into Mr. Wickfield’s room”); J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice 182 (Greenwich ed. 1982) (Elizabeth “accompanied her out of the room”).

Scalia returns to the Dellinger reference forcefully.

The Con- gress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger’s driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give “accompany” a meaning that covers only large distances.

This is a very well-written opinion.