[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-2 on Tuesday in Lockhart v. US [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for child pornography possession applies when the offender has been previously convicted of sexual abuse that did not involve a minor. In this case, Avondale Lockhart pleaded guilty to charges of possession of child pornography on his computer and had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting his adult girlfriend, resulting in the mandatory minimum sentence. The arguments on both sides were largely textual, with Lockhart believing the statutory phrase in 18 USC § 2252(b) [text], “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward” means that all three listed crimes must involve a minor to trigger the mandatory minimum. In holding that the mandatory minimum sentence applies to his previous offense that did not involve a minor, the court stated that the rule of last antecedent applies, meaning “a limiting clause or phrase … should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority:
Applied here, the last antecedent principle suggests that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies only the phrase that it immediately follows: “abusive sexual conduct.” As a corollary, it also suggests that the phrases “aggravated sexual abuse” and “sexual abuse” are not so constrained.
The court also disregarded the petitioner’s arguments regarding administrability concerns and application of the rule of lenity.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in November after granting certiorari [JURIST reports] in May. This ruling affirmed the decision [opinion, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website]. This opinion is the first issued by the court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. During oral argument, Scalia indicated [transcript, PDF] that he would have sided with Lockhart, stating that since the canons of statutory construction appear evenly matched, the rule of lenity should be applied to the petitioner.