Criminal Constitutional Avoidance
William W. Berry III
University of Mississippi School of Law
February 15, 2013
104 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 105 (2014).
Just two terms ago in United States v. Skilling, the Supreme Court used the avoidance canon in response to a void-for-vagueness challenge to the federal criminal fraud statute. As explained below, the Court severely restricted the statute’s meaning, limiting its proscription against “deprivation of honest services” to bribery and kickbacks.
This article argues that, contrary to the Court’s decision in Skilling, the canon of constitutional avoidance is inappropriate in void-for-vagueness cases. This is because such cases do not present a statutory ambiguity that requires choosing between competing meanings or interpretations. Instead, void-for-vagueness challenges concern statutes that either have a constitutionally clear meaning (and are not void-for-vagueness) or do not have a constitutionally clear meaning (and are void for vagueness). In other words, this article claims that the absence of statutory ambiguity — one interpretation that complies with the Constitution and one interpretation that indicates constitutional infirmities — in void-for-vagueness cases makes the use of the avoidance canon improper in such cases.
Simply put, vague criminal statutes are not inherently ambiguous. Instead of offering a choice between two meanings, they are indefinite, uncertain, and unclear. And, it is not the potential meanings of the vague statute that create constitutional problems; there is only a constitutional problem if there is no ascertainable meaning.
Part I of this article explores the justifications for the canon of constitutional avoidance. In Part II, this article describes the Court’s void-for-vagueness doctrine and its use of the avoidance canon to circumvent the vagueness question in Skilling. Part III argues that the use of the avoidance canon in Skilling was improper, and explains why it is not an appropriate vehicle to respond to void-for-vagueness constitutional challenges to federal criminal statutes. Part IV explores the negative theoretical and practical consequences of applying the avoidance canon to potentially vague statutes. Finally, Part V concludes the article by outlining a model for applying the avoidance canon to other constitutional questions involving criminal statutes,
Number of Pages in PDF File: 29
Keywords: Skilling, avoidance, canon, vagueness, ambiguity, statutory interpretation, white collar, fraud, honest services
Date posted: February 26, 2013 ; Last revised: March 24, 2015