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The Words Matter

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Lake County v. Rollins

On May 13, 1889, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lake County v. Rollins, 130 U.S. 662 (1889). The Constitution of Colorado of 1876 provided that no county could contract any debt by loan except for certain purposes therein named, and that such indebtedness could not exceed the rate therein named. When Lake County issued warrants in excess of the rate named, Rollins sued claiming that the rate was an absolute limitation upon all county indebtedness. Not only for the “purposes therein named,” but for every other purpose, including ordinary county expenses. The Court agreed with neither the conclusions of the lower court in favor of the plaintiff, nor the conclusions against the defendant and ruled in favor of the defendant based on the words in the constitution. The debt by loan limitations applied to certain purposes therein named, which did not extend to all county indebtedness.
In delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Lamar established a well settled rule of law.

“To get at the thought or meaning expressed in a statute, a contract, or a constitution, the first resort in all cases is to the natural signification of the words in the order of grammatical arrangement in which the framers of the instrument have placed them. If the words convey a definite meaning which involves no absurdity nor any contradiction of other parts of the instrument, then that meaning, apparent on the face of the instrument, must be accepted, and neither the courts nor the legislature have the right to add to it or take from it.”

Connally v. General Const. Co

On January 4, 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Connally v. General Const. Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926). In 1921, Oklahoma Statutes provided “that not less than the current rate of per diem wages in the locality where the work is performed shall be paid to workmen. The Commissioner of Labor complained that the wage paid by General Construction Company (GCC) was only $3.20 per day, asserted the current rate in the locality was $3.60, and gave notice to comply. In the territory surrounding the work performed by GCC, a variety of work was performed, and it was impossible to determine if the sums paid by GCC or the amount designated by the commissioner or either constitute the current per diem wage in the locality. The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff based on the facts that the statute contains no ascertainable standard of guilt; it cannot be determined with certainty what constitutes a current wage in any locality; and the term “locality” is fatally vague and uncertain.
In delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Sutherland established a well settled rule of law.

“That the terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties, is a well-recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law. And a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, violates the first essential of due process of law.”

In both cases, it was the words in the governing document that mattered. In the first, the words involved no absurdity, nor any contradiction and the apparent meaning must be accepted. In the second, the words forbid or require an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application. The same standards apply to any FSIS document. If the words in a statute, regulation, inspection policy, or administrative procedure implemented by FSIS:

  1. involve no absurdity or contradiction, then their meaning must be accepted.
  2. are so vague that men of common intelligence guess at their meaning and differ as to their application, they do not support an enforcement action.



About the author

Michael Fisher

Husband of one. Father of three. Grandfather of six. Soldier. Traveler. Advisor. Friend.

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