This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 29

POLITICS & POLICY
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1892—“It is a familiar rule that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute because not within its spirit nor within the intention of its makers.” A unanimous Supreme Court declares this spirit-of-the-law canon of nontextualism in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, as it holds that a federal law barring anyone from assisting or encouraging the importation of an alien by entering into a contract in advance with the alien “to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States” did not apply to a contract by which a church in New York contracted with E. Walpole Warren, an alien residing in England, to become its pastor.

The Court acknowledges that the law, in spelling out specific exceptions for professional actors, artists, lecturers, singers, and domestic servants, “strengthens the idea that every other kind of labor and service was intended to be reached.” But its examination of legislative history leads it to assert that “the intent of Congress was simply to stay the influx of … cheap unskilled labor.”

1972—A divided three-judge district court rules (in YWCA v. Kugler) that New Jersey’s abortion statute is unconstitutionally vague and violates the constitutional privacy rights of physicians and of their patients seeking abortion.

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In dissent, Judge Leonard I. Garth explains that the statute, as authoritatively interpreted by the New Jersey supreme court, is indistinguishable from the statute that the U.S. Supreme Court held to be “constitutionally definite” (i.e., not unduly vague) in its recent decision in United States v. Vuitch (1971). He further concludes that the “interests of family privacy or convenience … cannot be elevated over the right to live” and that it is therefore permissible for a state, in pursuit of its “compelling interest in the preservation of life, including fetal life,” to bar abortion.

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