The Armed Career Criminal Act1 (ACCA) imposes lengthy sentences on those who possess firearms after committing violent felonies on three or more different “occasions.”2 Last Term, in Wooden v. United States,3 the Supreme Court held that ten burglaries occurring in a single facility on a single night constituted a single occasion.4 The Court’s holding was sensible and unanimous. But two Justices used the case to spar over interpretive philosophy, each endorsing a different “canon of construction.” Justice Gorsuch championed the rule of lenity.5 Justice Kavanaugh critiqued that rule as inferior to the mens rea (guilty mind) presumption.6 As self-described “textualists,” both of these Justices think judges ought to act as “faithful agents.” But in Wooden, both also relied on moral reasoning inconsistent with faithful agency. That discrepancy highlights an ongoing problem for textualism writ large.
William Wooden robbed ten units of a storage facility in 1997.7 He pleaded guilty to ten counts of burglary for doing so.8 On a cold night seventeen years later, a man knocked on his door and asked to speak to his wife.9 That man, it turned out, was a plainclothes officer named Conway Mason.10 Once Mason found his way inside — he insists he was invited, which Wooden denies — Mason noticed that Wooden was carrying a rifle and ordered him to drop it.11 Based on Wooden’s prior felonies, federal prosecutors charged him with “being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.”12
Before trial, Wooden tried and failed to suppress the evidence of his weapons.13 The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by law enforcement.14 But given Mason’s testimony, the government argued that Wooden consented to Mason’s search, making it reasonable.15 Because the district court accepted a magistrate judge’s decision to trust Mason, it denied Wooden’s motion to suppress.16 Wooden lost his trial.17
At sentencing, prosecutors argued that Wooden’s sentence should be governed by the ACCA.18 Normally, the maximum sentence for Wooden’s crime would have been ten years.19 The ACCA places a minimum sentence of fifteen years on an individual who illegally possesses a firearm and has three or more convictions for a “violent felony . . . committed on occasions different from one another.”20 Wooden had been convicted of the 1997 storage burglaries, a 1989 aggravated assault, and a 2005 burglary — potentially twelve “occasions.”21 Wooden argued that neither the assault nor the burglaries were “violent felonies” under the ACCA, and that the storage burglaries occurred on a single occasion.22 The district court tabled whether Wooden’s assault was a violent felony, instead orally ruling that his burglaries were, and that each of his ten 1997 burglaries constituted a separate occasion.23 Wooden appealed his resulting sentence of nearly sixteen years in prison.24
The Sixth Circuit affirmed.25 Writing for the court, Judge Readler26 began with the Fourth Amendment. “[G]iven the district court’s front-row view of the evidentiary proceedings,” the Sixth Circuit accepted its dispositive finding that Wooden invited Mason inside.27 Then Judge Readler turned to the ACCA. The Sixth Circuit had recognized “at least three indicia that offenses are separate” under the ACCA: whether (1) one can discern the first offense’s end from the second’s start; (2) the offender could have stopped after the first offense; and (3) the offenses occurred in separate locations.28 To Judge Readler, “Wooden’s argument [came] up short, no matter the metric.”29 First, Wooden physically left one storage unit before entering another, so chronological borders were clear.30 Second, there was “no reason why it would have been impossible for Wooden to call it a night after the first burglary.”31 Finally, third, each of the ten units “was its own location.”32
Considering only the ACCA issue,33 the Supreme Court reversed and remanded.34 Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan35 swiftly rejected the government’s framework. The government would have defined an occasion as occurring at the moment when a single offense’s elements were satisfied.36 But that “leaves ordinary language behind.”37 Justice Kagan asked “how an ordinary person . . . might describe Wooden’s ten burglaries — and how she would not. The observer might say: ‘On one occasion, Wooden burglarized ten units in a storage facility.’ By contrast, she would never say: ‘On ten occasions, Wooden burglarized a unit in the facility.’”38 Justice Kagan also pointed out that the ACCA “contains both a three-offense requirement and a three-occasion requirement,” the latter of which would be redundant on the government’s definition.39
Instead, the majority crafted a “multi-factored” inquiry.40 First, on timing, offenses “committed close in time” often share an occasion.41 Second, on proximity, “the further away crimes take place, the less likely they are components of the same criminal event.”42 And third, on character, “[t]he more similar . . . the conduct” constituting the crimes, “the more apt they are to compose one occasion.”43 Each consideration favored Wooden: he committed identical crimes on one night in one place.44
The majority bolstered its analysis with legislative history. Until 1988, the ACCA had no occasions clause.45 That is, its penalty scheme applied whenever an offender met a convictions requirement.46 But when prosecutors tried to enhance one Samuel Petty’s sentence because of six felonies he had committed during one restaurant robbery, the Solicitor General “confessed error,” arguing to the Court that this was inconsistent with the ACCA’s purpose of targeting repeat offenders.47 Congress added the occasions clause “to prevent future Pettys” — like Wooden — “from being sentenced as career criminals.”48
Justice Gorsuch concurred in the judgment.49 He argued that “the key to this case . . . [lies] in the rule of lenity. Under that rule, any reasonable doubt about the application of a penal law must be resolved in favor of liberty.”50 Justice Gorsuch first noted lenity’s pedigree. It “appeared in English courts” and was “widely recognized . . . in the Republic’s early years.”51 Lenity also has a close relationship to due process (it “enforce[s] the fair notice requirement”)52 and the separation of powers (“laws restricting liberty require the assent of the people’s representatives”).53 Woven through Justice Gorsuch’s opinion are notable hints at lenity’s moral force. For example, the opinion echoed Chief Justice Marshall’s sentiment that lenity protects “the tenderness of the law for the rights of individuals.”54
Justice Kavanaugh concurred, writing separately to address Justice Gorsuch.55 Because “ambiguity is in the eye of the beholder,” applying lenity more broadly could spur “significant inconsistency, unpredictability, and unfairness in application.”56 For that reason, it should apply only when a statute is “grievously ambiguous,” as some Supreme Court cases have suggested.57 Justice Kavanaugh instead argued that a mens rea presumption could solve the “important concern . . . about fair notice in federal criminal law.”58 This presumption requires the government to demonstrate that a defendant broke the law with a specific state of mind (which state of mind remains variable and unclear59), as long as the statute does not say otherwise.60 The presumption serves the constitutional value of fair notice and the “principle that an act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty.”61 It also has a long history: “[A]s Justice Robert Jackson remarked,” the presumption is “universal and persistent in mature systems of law.”62
Justice Barrett concurred in part and concurred in the judgment, challenging the majority’s legislative history.63 In her view, not enough evidence tied the occasions clause to Petty’s case or to the Solicitor General’s brief therein.64 Further, that brief attributed certain goals to the ACCA that Congress never ratified, so it was not authoritative.65
Justice Sotomayor concurred in the majority opinion and joined most of Justice Gorsuch’s opinion.66 She wrote separately to emphasize that the “[un]clarity of the record below . . . underscore[s] the Government’s failure to carry its burden.”67
Wooden sparks many questions,68 but two of its concurrences stand out. Neither Justice Gorsuch’s rule of lenity nor Justice Kavanaugh’s mens rea presumption is rooted in the text of the ACCA, even though both Justices are “textualists.” It is not new for textualists to rely on certain kinds of extratextual factors — so-called “substantive canons of construction.” But the defenses that textualists have developed for the substantive canons cannot justify the Wooden concurrences. This raises two questions: whether textualists can honestly claim not to read values onto text, and whether faithful agents can use the canons as people actually want them used.
According to its patron saint Justice Scalia, textualism is the theory that “[t]he text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed.”69 In short, textualism relies on two foundations. First, courts should be the “faithful agents” of either Congress or the people.70 Second, focusing on “the final wording of a statute” is the best way to act as a faithful agent.71 Among other things, that means no personal values in the courtroom.72 Textualism has many critics,73 though it thrives in modern courts.74 For their parts, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are proud textualists.75
But Justice Gorsuch’s rule of lenity and Justice Kavanaugh’s mens rea presumption look like they import values into text. In Justice Gorsuch’s own words, lenity stands for the principle that “where uncertainty exists, the law gives way to liberty.”76 And English courts developed the rule of lenity precisely to override harsh sentences imposed by statute.77 The mens rea presumption is similar. It allows judges to add conditions to enacted text in order to “protect criminal defendants against arbitrary or vague . . . statutes.”78 Indeed, the opinion that paved the way for the modern mens rea presumption called it “instinctive” — depicting it as a natural (perhaps moral?) demand on judges, not a textual one.79
It’s not just Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. According to multiple studies, textualists regularly use such “substantive canons of construction.”80 These are extratextual “principles and presumptions that judges have created to protect important background norms.”81 How do textualists respond to the apparent inconsistency between text and canon? In Wooden, they contended that the canons’ extratextual values were unique: “ancient,”82 “deeply rooted,”83 and around “for centuries.”84 But a value’s age does not make it textual.
The real question is whether canons “fit with the most basic textualist assumptions”85 — for one, that judges should act as faithful agents of Congress. Few have actually answered this question. Then-Professor Barrett wrote that “no one ha[d]”86 before she did, though related arguments from Dean John Manning and Professors William Baude and Stephen Sachs deserve attention.
Manning’s defense of canon use came first. He argues that canons reveal “clear social meaning”87 by “acknowledg[ing] . . . established (but unstated) assumptions shared by the relevant linguistic community.”88 To the textualist, these assumptions may supply only “semantic context — evidence that goes to the way a reasonable person would use language,” rather than “policy context — evidence that suggests the way a reasonable person would address the mischief being remedied.”89 On this view, a judge’s mens rea presumption can be valid if, and only if, it is a pure estimation of how an average lawyer would understand a law’s text. Put differently, valid substantive canons are really linguistic ones. They reflect the way people use language, never “invit[ing] the court to make adjustments” given a case’s substance.90
Justice Barrett came second. She describes “[c]anons as [c]onstitutional [i]mplementation.”91 She writes that “[c]onstitutionally inspired canons might be explained as an outgrowth of the power of judicial review” — with judges acting “as faithful agents of the Constitution,” not of Congress.92 Accordingly, judges may use canons as “‘stop and think’ measures” to spotlight “the constitutional implications of [Congress’s] policies.”93 This view is importantly narrow. To prevent sweeping but facially Constitution-based decisions, Justice Barrett endorses only canons that protect “concrete” values and that apply to “a narrow category of legislation.”94 This theory does qualify the judge’s role as a faithful agent of Congress, but only to serve the Constitution.95 Because that same Constitution grounds faithful agent theory in the first place,96 textualists may be amenable to Justice Barrett’s approach.
Finally, Baude and Sachs argue that “the canons stand on their own authority as a form of common law.”97 On this view, judges should be faithful agents of the “law,” first and foremost.98 And while the valid law champions text, it also includes “distinct rules of unwritten law.”99 Baude and Sachs therefore evaluate canons not on “an ability to make the legal system work better . . . [but] according to the appropriate theory of determining unwritten law.”100 To be fair, Baude and Sachs stay quiet about that determination, leaving open whether a judge’s “general concern for equity” is valid “unwritten law.”101 But, first, both authors elsewhere seem skeptical this is so.102 Second, any version of their argument that does recognize the concern for equity would be hard to call a textualist one. And third, most importantly, even if Baude and Sachs do accept the concern for equity as a valid part of law, they would permit a judge to consider it only as a means of agency to law, not as a first-order source of judgment. For these reasons, Baude and Sachs’s theory cannot support a judge who values equity in the first instance, especially insofar as their theory serves textualists.
None of these frameworks justifies the Wooden concurrences — at least if those concurrences are taken at face value.103 To start, neither Justice Gorsuch nor Justice Kavanaugh framed his inquiry as a semantic one, as Manning would require. Instead, both separated the act of interpreting a statute’s text from the act of applying a canon. Besides writing that “the law gives way to liberty,”104 Justice Gorsuch observed that lenity applies “[w]here the traditional tools of statutory interpretation yield no clear answer.”105 Justice Kavanaugh noted that the mens rea presumption may apply when a “criminal statute does not contain a ‘willfulness’ requirement.”106 Read closely, the concurrences do not conceptualize substantive canons as helping judges “interpret” what a text “contains,” but as helping them decide cases after they do so.107
The concurrences face a similar problem with Baude and Sachs. To satisfy them, each Justice would have needed to support his preferred canon in the first instance for its legal or historical, rather than its functional or moral, superiority. But that’s not what they did. Justice Gorsuch wrote that lenity is rich “in age and wisdom,”108 and that its rejection would be an “instrumen[t] of tyranny”109 making Americans “slaves to their magistrates.”110 Justice Kavanaugh, too, favored the mens rea presumption because a “concern for fair notice is better addressed” by it.111 Meanwhile, nowhere did the Justices write that they expressed normative concerns only because the law instructed them to, as perhaps Baude and Sachs could accept (though, again, a textualist could not). Unless the Justices’ extensive normative writing is rhetorical flourish alone, Manning, Baude, and Sachs can’t endorse their work.
The question is closer with Justice Barrett. She permits normative reasoning when it is motivated by the Constitution. And Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh did tie their canons to constitutional values.112 But that isn’t enough — even on the charitable premise that the concurrences considered only the Constitution, rather than morality.113 Specifically, both fail Justice Barrett’s test by invoking nonspecific constitutional themes that affect a wide range of legislation. Justice Gorsuch supported lenity by citing the exceptionally broad tenets of “fair notice and the separation of powers,” proposing to read all “penal” laws (not just criminal ones) with a thumb on the scale.114 He wrote, for example, that “[l]enity works to enforce the fair notice requirement by ensuring that . . . liberty always prevails over ambiguous laws.”115 Justice Kavanaugh also phrased the mens rea requirement as “one solution” to a “fair notice problem.”116
Justice Barrett rejects exactly these kinds of proclamations: “‘Fairness’ is a nebulous value susceptible to many different interpretations and applicable across a wide range of legislation.”117 Her concern is that when judges are permitted to craft “one solution” to “fair notice,” especially when that solution affects many laws, they do not act like agents.118 Instead, they act like a judge who uses a personal “canon” of reading employment laws to favor laborers, insisting that she does so to enforce the constitutional value of equal protection for oppressed groups. Textualists generally condemn such behavior. Maybe this is why Justice Barrett’s scholarship is lukewarm on the rule of lenity,119 and why she declined to join Justice Gorsuch or Justice Kavanaugh in Wooden.
If the Wooden concurrences are inconsistent with faithful agency, two conclusions follow. First, “textualist” judges should not dismiss explicit concerns over equity as different in kind from their own. Maybe textualists have reasons to import only “ancient” values into their decisions, but those reasons are brought to the text, not found in it. This admission forces textualists to engage with the reasons cutting against them — reasons for adding new values to the judge’s toolbox. Second, faithful agency (at least in the textualist’s sense120) might be an unwanted ideal. It requires judges to throw away the canons as people probably want them used. For example, faithful agency would make lenity a tool of language or history rather than fairness. That even Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh demanded more from their canons shows how counterintuitive and unkind faithful agency can be. And of course, faithful agency’s alternatives come in a variety of flavors, all of which respect enacted text.121 The point is just that judges shouldn’t stick their heads in the sand, or like modern textualists, pretend to.