Chief Justice John Roberts: What’s the Definition of Corny?

Mar 1, 2011 6:37pm

ABC News' Ariane DeVogue reports:

Chief Justice John Roberts proved today that opinions regarding dry legal issues can be brought to life with lively prose and an attention to grammar.

At issue in FCC v. AT&T was the Freedom of Information Act which requires federal agencies to make records publicly available upon request unless they fall within several exemptions of the law.  AT&T — seeking to avoid the release of sensitive documents –argued it could be covered by one exemption pertaining to an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 

The question before the court was whether corporations have “personal privacy” for the purposes of the exemption.

Roberts, writing for a unanimous court, said in this instance personal privacy did not apply to corporations.

“‘Personal’ ordinarily refers to individuals," he wrote.

“We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations. ”

AT&T had argued that since Congress had defined the noun “person” to include corporations, the adjective “personal” should also refer to a corporation.

Roberts disagreed and provided a  grammar lesson:

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. The noun “crab” refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,”, which has little to do with “corn,” (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of an axis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to forgetful fussiness,”.

At the end of the opinion Roberts reiterated the argument that a corporation doesn’t qualify for a “personal privacy” exemption under the law.

“We trust that AT&T won’t take it personally,” he wrote.

 

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