“If It Means Anything, It Must Mean…”

September 9th, 2015

A very common phrase in Supreme Court opinions takes this form: “If P means anything, it must mean Q.” In other words P –> Q, where there is no indication of why the link is there. There is no real logical syllogism here, but it is a common dodge that Justices use to make a connection that may not otherwise make.  It is especially prevalent when dealing with clauses of the Constitution.

Here are several examples from big ConLaw cases (though the phrase is used in many statutory cases as well):

  • If the recognition power is to mean anything, it must mean that the President not only makes the initial, formal recognition determination but also may maintain that determination in his and his agent’s statements. Under international law, recognition may be effected by written or oral declaration.Zivotofsky ex rel. Zivotofsky v. Kerry, 135 S. Ct. 2076, 2080, 192 L. Ed. 2d 83 (2015)
  • In distinguishing penalties from taxes, this Court has explained that “if the concept of penalty means anything, it means punishment for an unlawful act or omission.” United States v. Reorganized CF & I Fabricators of Utah, Inc., 518 U.S. 213, 224, 116 S.Ct. 2106, 135 L.Ed.2d 506 (1996);Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 132 S. Ct. 2566, 2596, 183 L. Ed. 2d 450 (2012)
  • But even if Common Article 3 recognizes this prohibition on “special tribunals,” that prohibition does not cover petitioner’s tribunal. If “special” means anything in contradistinction to “regular,” it would be in the sense of “special” as “relating to a single thing,” and “regular” as “uniform in course, practice, or occurrence.”Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557, 730, 126 S. Ct. 2749, 2852, 165 L. Ed. 2d 723 (2006) (Alito, J., dissenting)
  • Surely if the rule of lenity, which we have held applicable to the Hobbs Act, see infra, at 1067–1068, means anything, it means that the familiar meaning of the word “obtain”—to gain possession of—should be preferred to the vague and obscure “to attain regulation of the fate of.”Scheidler v. Nat’l Org. for Women, Inc., 537 U.S. 393, 403, 123 S. Ct. 1057, 1065, 154 L. Ed. 2d 991 (2003)
  • If the First Amendment means anything, it means that regulating speech must be a last-not first-resort. Yet here it seems to have been the first strategy the Government thought to try.Thompson v. W. States Med. Ctr., 535 U.S. 357, 373, 122 S. Ct. 1497, 1507, 152 L. Ed. 2d 563 (2002)
  • We take La Franca ‘s statement of the distinction to be sufficient for the decision of this case; if the concept of penalty means anything, it means punishment for an unlawful act or omission, and a punishment for an unlawful omission is what this exaction is.United States v. Reorganized CF & I Fabricators of Utah, Inc., 518 U.S. 213, 224, 116 S. Ct. 2106, 2113, 135 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1996)
  • If judicial immunity means anything, it *13 means that a judge “will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error … or was in excess of his authority.”Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 12-13, 112 S. Ct. 286, 288, 116 L. Ed. 2d 9 (1991)
  • Those cases serve to vindicate the idea that “liberty,” if it means anything, must entail freedom from governmental domination in making the most intimate and personal of decisions.Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 216, 111 S. Ct. 1759, 1784, 114 L. Ed. 2d 233 (1991)
  • If narrow tailoring means anything, surely it must mean that action taken to counter the effect of amassed “war chests” must be targeted, if possible, at amassed “war chests.”Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 688, 110 S. Ct. 1391, 1413, 108 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1990) overruled by Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310, 130 S. Ct. 876, 175 L. Ed. 2d 753 (2010)
  • If the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment means anything, it must mean that an individual’s desire to follow his or her faith is not simply another personal preference, to be accommodated by government when convenience allows.Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 525, 106 S. Ct. 1310, 1322, 89 L. Ed. 2d 478 (1986)
  • If that case and its guidelines mean anything, the presence of Pawtucket’s crèche in a municipally sponsored display must be held to be a violation of the First Amendment.Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 726, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 1387, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1984)
  •  But if the process of appellate review means anything, it requires that the legal principles applied in one case be harmonized with settled law.Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939, 989, 103 S. Ct. 3418, 3445, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1134 (1983)
  •  If a prisoner’s statutory right to appeal means anything, a State simply cannot be allowed to kill him and thereby moot his appeal.Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 912, 103 S. Ct. 3383, 3404, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1090 (1983)
  •  And, if appellee’s right to procreate means anything at all, it must imply some right to enter the only relationship in which the State of Wisconsin allows sexual relations legally to take placeZablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 386, 98 S. Ct. 673, 681, 54 L. Ed. 2d 618 (1978)
  •  For if those ‘values’ mean anything, they should mean at least this: If we must choose whether editorial decisions are to be made in the free judgment of individual broadcasters, or imposed by bureaucratic fiat, the choice must be for freedomColumbia Broad. Sys., Inc. v. Democratic Nat. Comm., 412 U.S. 94, 146, 93 S. Ct. 2080, 2108, 36 L. Ed. 2d 772 (1973)
  •  “[I]f the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare … desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.”Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 534, 93 S.Ct. 2821, 2826, 37 L.Ed.2d 782 1973).
  • But the Court entered its judgment, and if stare decisis means anything, that decision should be regarded as a controlling pronouncement of law.Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 400, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 2809, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 (1972)
  •  “[T]he marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional makeup. If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S., at 453, 92 S.Ct., at 1038 (emphasis in original).
  • “If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch.”Stanley v. Georgia (1969)
  • But if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a man cannot be sent to prison merely for distributing publications which offend a judge’s esthetic sensibilities, mine or any other’sGinzburg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463, 498, 86 S. Ct. 942, 956, 16 L. Ed. 2d 31 (1966) (Stewart, J., dissenting).
  • Certainly if all the provisions to the King’s ‘transporting us beyond power of the Federal Government and reserve other power to the States are to mean anything, they mean at least that the States have power to pass laws and amend their constitutions without first sending their officials hundreds of miles away to beg federal authorities to approve them.State of S.C. v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 359, 86 S. Ct. 803, 834, 15 L. Ed. 2d 769 (Black, J., dissenting).
  • And, finally, we concluded: “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.”Reynolds v. Sims (1964).
  • If the history of liberty means anything, if constitutional guaranties are worth anything, this proceeding must fail.Beauharnais v. People of State of Ill., 343 U.S. 250, 289, 72 S. Ct. 725, 747, 96 L. Ed. 919 (1952)
  • If words mean anything, the statute extends its protection to all witnesses, to all testimony, and in all courts.Adams v. State of Md., 347 U.S. 179, 184, 74 S. Ct. 442, 446, 98 L. Ed. 608 (1954)
  • It would seem plain, therefore, that if the constitution means anything, and if these judicial utterances, extending, as they do, over a period of 80 years, and embracing a variety of interests, mean anything, they mean that the power to provide and prescribe the laws necessary to effectuate the governmental and official powers of the United States and its officers is vested in congressCunningham v. Neagle, 135 U.S. 1, 89, 10 S. Ct. 658, 677, 34 L. Ed. 55 (1890)