Can you define the word “any”?
Would you restrict the phrase “any court” to only a court in the United States?
Apparently, the United States Supreme Court would.
Check out this story. This guy from Pennsylvania ships three water heaters to Japan. The Japanese authorities finally get suspicious and open the third container to find rifles and ammunition. So he is convicted in Japan for smuggling guns. He buys a handgun in a store in PA, and checks “no” as his answer to whether he has been convicted in “any court” of a crime punishable by more than a year. He is arrested for false statements and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. His case ends up in the Supreme Court, to decide whether the phrase “in any court” means “any” or means “only courts in the United States.” The majority found the latter.
But today, the Supreme Court sided with Mr. Small, ruling 5 to 3 that the phrase “convicted in any court” applies only to convictions in the United States. “Congress ordinarily intends its statutes to have domestic, not extraterritorial, application,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for a majority that also included Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
To include foreign convictions, the majority reasoned, would raise the possibility of tainting a person who had been caught up in a legal system lacking American standards of fairness. Singapore imprisons people for up to three years for vandalism, the majority noted by way of example.
In dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy said, among other things, that “any” means what it says. “Indisputably, Small was convicted in a Japanese court of crimes punishable by a prison term exceeding one year,” Justice Thomas wrote. “The clear terms of the statute prohibit him from possessing a gun in the United States.”
As for foreign court procedures, the dissenters said, the majority “constructs a parade of horribles” and “cherry-picks a few egregious examples” like the Singapore vandalism law.
“And it is eminently practical to put foreign convictions to the same use as domestic ones,” the dissenters said. “Foreign convictions indicate dangerousness just as reliably as domestic convictions.”
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not take part in the case of Small v. United States, No. 03-750, which was argued last fall while he was undergoing treatment for cancer.
The Supreme Court accepted Mr. Small’s case because federal circuit courts had come to different conclusions on the relevance of foreign convictions in cases like his. Today, the five justices in the majority resolved those conflicts – while noting that theirs might still not be the last word.
Even though they held that the phrase “convicted in any court” applies to any domestic court, the majority said, “we stand ready to revise this assumption should statutory language, context, history or purpose show the contrary.”
“Congress, of course, remains free to change this conclusion through statutory amendment,” the majority added pointedly.