Jones v. United States - Oral Argument - March 21, 2000 Page 17

Jones v. United States

Media for Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 22, 2000 in Jones v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 2000 in Jones v. United States

Michael R. Dreeben:

Well, anyone who commits arson knows that it's a crime.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, but are you saying that the jurisdictional element is not subject to any sort of a vagueness test?

Michael R. Dreeben:

I don't think the jurisdictional element is subject to a vagueness test when... when what Congress does is express its intent to go to the limits of the Constitution and use language that allows this Court to enforce that limitation.


There are many Federal criminal statutes that contain jurisdictional elements like this, and the Court has construed those elements in a way to give them meaning, but not in a sense that requires the actual individual to appreciate where this Court will go on constitutional--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, you... you have two problems here really.

You have the notion that if there's a constitutional doubt, you try to interpret the statute more narrowly to avoid any constitutional problem.

And you also, because it's a criminal statute, are concerned presumably with the rule of lenity.

And when you put all those together, where do you go?

It seems to me maybe a narrower reading of this statute.

Michael R. Dreeben:

--Well, the Court could adopt a narrower reading of the statute, but I think that the language of the statute as written covers the crime that's prosecuted here, and Congress indicated an intention that it be covered.

Therefore, the question for the Court is whether it can constitutionally do that.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Just before... I'm perhaps asking you to repeat something you've said, but I don't have it precisely.

Justice Scalia earlier asked... and he certainly had a point, and Justice O'Connor picked it up.

And when I look back at the statute, I realize this covers arson of any property.

Michael R. Dreeben:

That's correct.

Stephen G. Breyer:

I mean, it's really everything.

So... so, given that, what do those words precisely used in, on your theory of pushing to the limit... because he's right in saying that it's the word affecting commerce that has the tradition.

It's not the word used in.

And... and what do they mean on your theory?

Can you give them any meaning at all?

I can't think of any.

And... and you said there is, but I haven't got precisely what it is.

Michael R. Dreeben:

Well, I think the Court has recognized that the word use is a broad verb that intends to connote the idea of to employ or to put to service.

And then it takes from its context more specific meanings that it may have in a particular statute.

Now, in this statute, the... the goal that Congress had in mind was protect interstate economic affairs from the effects of arson on buildings or real property or personal property that are used in activities affecting commerce.

So, Congress wanted to... the courts to identify those properties that are used in activities affecting commerce, and then it sought to exert its power to protect them.

And that is--

Antonin Scalia:

And you think that... that drawing down an infinitesimal overall amount of natural gas causes the building, within the meaning that Congress had in mind, to be used in an activity affecting commerce?

Michael R. Dreeben:

--Yes, I do, Justice Scalia, but we have three different theories on how this building is used in an activity affecting commerce.