In this post, let’s revisit H.L.A. Hart’s paradigm example of the problem of interpretation in law: a prosaic ordinance prohibiting “vehicles in the park” (a real life example of just such an ordinance is pictured below). Assume the text of this municipal ordinance leaves the term “vehicle” undefined; as a result, whether a miniature scooter is included within the definition of vehicles is an open question, a matter of judicial interpretation. How should a judge decide this delicate question? On the one hand, we have the “plain and ordinary meaning rule.” Courts generally assume that the words of an ordinance or statute are to be read using in their plain and ordinary sense, so if a scooter is a “vehicle” in a literal sense, then it is a vehicle within the plain and ordinary meaning of the ordinance. On the other hand, however, we have the “rule of lenity,” which tells us that ambiguous criminal laws must be read in favor of the defendant and against the government. Or, in the words of William Blackstone, “penal statutes must be construed strictly.” So, which rule of interpretation should apply to this case?
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