When deciding what a word or term in a statute means, the rule of statutory interpretation is to give the word or term its plain and ordinary meaning. This is known as the plain meaning rule. If the word or term is clear and unambiguous, then the court will not look beyond the text of the statute to determine its meaning. The principal rule is well known to military defense counsel as they prepare a case for trial.
If a word or term is ambiguous, then the court may use other tools of statutory interpretation to determine its meaning. These tools include:
- Looking at the context of the word or term in the statute. This means considering the other words and phrases in the statute, as well as the overall purpose of the statute.
- Considering the legislative history of the statute. This includes looking at the bill drafts, committee reports, and other materials that were created during the legislative process.
- Considering relevant case law. This includes looking at how other courts have interpreted similar words and terms in other statutes.
The court will use these tools to interpret the ambiguous word or term in a way consistent with the statute’s overall purpose. Readers should also be aware of Scalia & Garner’s excellent book–Reading the Law, for deep dives into the rules and their complexities. As military defense counsel, we have a copy handy on our bookshelf.
It is important to note that the rules of statutory interpretation are complex and no single rule can be applied to all cases. Courts will often weigh different factors when interpreting a statute, including the plain meaning of the text, the context of the statute, the legislative history of the statute, and relevant case law.
A specific case-–United States v. Cabuhat
Over the last few years, Congress has made life difficult for military defense counsel, actually all lawyers practicting military justice, because of the numerous changes to the definition of what is or is not a crime.
Before a description of Cabuhat, what does (Google) Bard say The phrase “in the presence of” means in the same place as and close enough to be seen or heard. It can be used to describe a physical presence, such as when you are sitting in a room with someone.’
Cabuhat, assigned to the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Ramstein, Germany, was sentenced to 30 years confinement in June 2021. He plead guilty to SA of a child, wrongfully photographing the child, and viewing and possessing CP.
Cabuhat was arrested in 2021 after an Air Force Office OSI investigation. Cabuhat SA a child on many times and had photographed the person during the abuse. He also had a large collection of CP.
Cabuhat pleaded guilty to all charges in June 2021. The military judge sentenced him to 30 years (to be served at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, KS), a dishonorable discharge, reduction to E-1, and mandatory SOR.
The central issue in the case is the meaning of “in the prescence of.” This can be important when the parties are separated and are communicating via Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime or similar application.