Some Fun With Statutory Construction: Trains, Tickets and Snails

I’ve been enjoying Justice Stephen Breyer’s latest book, “Making  Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View,” which sets forth his views on a variety of subjects, including constitutional and statutory interpretation.  On the latter subject he offered an interesting not-so-hypothetical situation, which I’d like to share with you.  I think the hypothetical does a great job of distinguishing between plain meaning folk on the one hand and, on the other hand, folks who believe purpose and context are relevant in interpreting even clear statutes.

Here is the fact pattern, taken from a true story that appeared in the press a few years back:  A teenage boy boards a train in France.  He has a ticket.  When the conductor comes by to collect the ticket, he notices that the boy is carrying a bucket with 12 snails in it.  The railroad company has a rule, clearly published, that says anyone traveling with an animal must buy a ticket for the animal.  The rule further states that if the animal fits in a carrying basket, the ticket price shall not exceed, say, $1.00.  The conductor charges the boy an additional $1.00.  The French press learns about this incident and excoriates the railroad company and conductor for charging the boy for his snails.  The company returns the money to the boy with apologies.

Question:  Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the rule regarding fares for animals is equivalent to a statute, did the conductor interpret it correctly when he charged the boy for his snails?  Shouldn’t he have charged the boy an additional $12.00 ($1.00 for each of the 12 snails)?  And if you think the rule did not apply to snails at all, why not?

Send me along your thoughts.  I’ll publish results of this informal poll in a subsequent post.  (The identity of all responders will remain anonymous!)

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Update: Here’s one reader’s comment:

Straight away, by its own wording, the rule is impossible to enforce. The animal kingdom as currently constituted includes members from the size of whales down to minute insects. Someone boarding the train carrying two sponges in a suitcase is carrying animals (however dead) in a “basket.” $1. Someone whose dog ($1 please) is carrying a flea (another $1 please) and being led by an owner who has picked up a mosquito as he entered the train (yet another $1) all fall within the same class: animal. Similarly someone could demand that the RR bear his boxed pet blue whale for $1 even though it is unlikely that any piece of equipment that the RR owned could suffice for either weight or size of this pet.

Finally, given what Frenchmen do with snails, the boy was simply packing his lunch.

Another reader writes:

He wasn’t traveling with an animal, he was “traveling with” twelve animals.  If this is Spaceship Earth, we are “traveling with” every animal on earth.  Are not all the passengers on the train “traveling with” the boy’s animals? If so, “strictly” speaking, shouldn’t each passenger on the train buy a ticket for each animal on the train?  Are not humans animals? If two friends are “traveling with” each other, must not each buy a ticket for the other (presumably in addition to one for himself)? Aren’t microorganisms animals? I seem to recall a Firesign Theater skit involving an election where the newscasters were awaiting the counting of the “microorganism vote.”


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