U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Scalia Delivers Lesson on Word Usage

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A lawyer for a company that sells tax-free cigarettes over the Internet got a lesson on word usage from Justice Antonin Scalia on Tuesday.

The problems began for lawyer Randolph Barnhouse soon after he described an opportunity to collect tax money as an “inchoate” interest—an interest that is not yet fully formed, the Associated Press reports.

Barnhouse was arguing that a city government may not bring a RICO suit to recover uncollected taxes because a lost tax opportunity is not an injury to property covered by the statute. (SCOTUSblog has the argument preview.)

In response to a hypothetical, Barnhouse then spoke of a “choate” interest in property—to Scalia’s dismay. Page 5 of the transcript (PDF) has the exchange.

“There is no such adjective,” Scalia said. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as choate. There is inchoate, but the opposite of inchoate is not choate.”

As Barnhouse tried to move on, Scalia offered an example. “It’s like gruntled,” he said.

“But I think I am right on the law, Your Honor,” Barnhouse offered, but Scalia wasn’t done.

“Exactly. Disgruntled, ” Scalia said. Some people mistakenly assume the opposite of disgruntled is gruntled, he explained.

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