Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
Defendants convicted of possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4) are subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and an increased maximum sentence if they have "a prior conviction ... under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." § 2252(b)(2).
The question before us is whether the phrase "involving a minor or ward" modifies all items in the list of predicate crimes ("aggravated sexual abuse," "sexual abuse," and "abusive sexual conduct") or only the one item that immediately precedes it ("abusive sexual conduct"). Below, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several other Courts of Appeals in holding that it modifies only "abusive sexual conduct." The Eighth Circuit has reached the contrary result. We granted certiorari to resolve that split. 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 2350, 192 L.Ed.2d 143 (2015). We affirm the Second Circuit's holding that the phrase "involving a minor or ward" in § 2252(b)(2) modifies only "abusive sexual conduct."
In April 2000, Avondale Lockhart was convicted of sexual abuse in the first degree under N.Y. Penal Law Ann. § 130.65(1) (West Cum. Supp. 2015). The
Lockhart's presentence report calculated a guidelines range of 78 to 97 months for the possession offense. But the report also concluded that Lockhart was subject to § 2252(b)(2)'s mandatory minimum because his prior New York abuse conviction related "to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." PSR ¶¶ 87-88.
Lockhart objected, arguing that the statutory phrase "involving a minor or ward" applies to all three listed crimes: "aggravated sexual abuse," "sexual abuse," and "abusive sexual conduct." He therefore contended that his prior conviction for sexual abuse involving an adult fell outside the enhancement's ambit. The District Court rejected Lockhart's argument and applied the mandatory minimum. The Second Circuit affirmed his sentence. 749 F.3d 148 (C.A.2 2014).
Section 2252(b)(2) reads in full:
This case concerns that provision's list of state sexual-abuse offenses. The issue before us is whether the limiting phrase that appears at the end of that list — "involving a minor or ward" — applies to all three predicate crimes preceding it in the list or only the final predicate crime. We hold that "involving a minor or ward" modifies only "abusive sexual conduct," the antecedent immediately preceding it. Although § 2252(b)(2)'s list of state predicates is awkwardly phrased (to put it charitably), the provision's text and context together reveal a straightforward reading. A timeworn textual canon is confirmed by the structure and internal logic of the statutory scheme.
Consider the text. When this Court has interpreted statutes that include a list of terms or phrases followed by a limiting clause, we have typically applied an interpretive strategy called the "rule of the last antecedent." See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 26, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003). The rule provides that "a limiting clause or phrase ... should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows." Ibid.; see also Black's Law Dictionary 1532-1533 (10th ed. 2014) ("[Q]ualifying words or phrases modify the words or phrases immediately preceding them and not words or phrases more remote, unless the extension is necessary from the context or the spirit of the entire
This Court has applied the rule from our earliest decisions to our more recent. See, e.g., Sims Lessee v. Irvine, 3 Dall. 425, 444, n., 1 S.Ct. 665 (1799); FTC v. Mandel Brothers, Inc., 359 U.S. 385, 389, n. 4, 79 S.Ct. 818, 3 L.Ed.2d 893 (1959); Barnhart, 540 U.S., at 26, 124 S.Ct. 376. The rule reflects the basic intuition that when a modifier appears at the end of a list, it is easier to apply that modifier only to the item directly before it. That is particularly true where it takes more than a little mental energy to process the individual entries in the list, making it a heavy lift to carry the modifier across them all. For example, imagine you are the general manager of the Yankees and you are rounding out your 2016 roster. You tell your scouts to find a defensive catcher, a quick-footed shortstop, or a pitcher from last year's World Champion Kansas City Royals. It would be natural for your scouts to confine their search for a pitcher to last year's championship team, but to look more broadly for catchers and shortstops.
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.
Of course, as with any canon of statutory interpretation, the rule of the last antecedent "is not an absolute and can assuredly be overcome by other indicia of meaning." Barnhart, 540 U.S., at 26, 124 S.Ct. 376; see also Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809, 109 S.Ct. 1500, 103 L.Ed.2d 891 (1989) ("It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme"). For instance, take "`the laws, the treaties, and the constitution of the United States.'" Post, at 964, n. 1 (KAGAN, J., dissenting). A reader intuitively applies "of the United States" to "the laws," "the treaties" and "the constitution" because (among other things) laws, treaties, and the constitution are often cited together, because readers are used to seeing "of the United States" modify each of them, and because the listed items are simple and parallel without unexpected internal modifiers or structure. Section 2252(b)(2), by contrast, does not contain items that readers are used to seeing listed together or a concluding modifier that readers are accustomed to applying to each of them. And the varied syntax of each item in the list makes it hard for the reader to carry the final modifying clause across all three.
More importantly, here the interpretation urged by the rule of the last antecedent is not overcome by other indicia of meaning. To the contrary, § 2252(b)(2)'s context fortifies the meaning that principle commands.
Our inquiry into § 2252(b)(2)'s context begins with the internal logic of that provision. Section 2252(b)(2) establishes sentencing minimums and maximums for three categories of offenders. The first third of the section imposes a 10-year maximum sentence on offenders with no prior convictions. The second third imposes a 10-year minimum and 20-year maximum on offenders who have previously violated a federal offense listed within various chapters of the Federal Criminal Code. And the last third imposes the same minimum and maximum on offenders who have previously committed state "sexual
Among the chapters of the Federal Criminal Code that can trigger § 2252(b)(2)'s recidivist enhancement are crimes "under ... chapter 109A." Chapter 109A criminalizes a range of sexual-abuse offenses involving adults or minors and wards.
This similarity appears to be more than a coincidence. We cannot state with certainty that Congress used Chapter 109A as a template for the list of state predicates set out in § 2252(b)(2), but we cannot ignore the parallel, particularly because the headings in Chapter 109A were in place when Congress amended the statute to add § 2252(b)(2)'s state sexual-abuse predicates.
If Congress had intended to limit each of the state predicates to conduct "involving a minor or ward," we doubt it would have followed, or thought it needed to follow, so closely the structure and language of Chapter 109A.
Lockhart argues, to the contrary, that the phrase "involving a minor or ward"
This Court has long acknowledged that structural or contextual evidence may "rebut the last antecedent inference." Jama v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 543 U.S. 335, 344, n. 4, 125 S.Ct. 694, 160 L.Ed.2d 708 (2005). For instance, in Porto Rico Railway, Light & Power Co. v. Mor, 253 U.S. 345, 40 S.Ct. 516, 64 S.Ct. 944 (1920), on which Lockhart relies, this Court declined to apply the rule of the last antecedent where "[n]o reason appears why" a modifying clause is not "applicable as much to the first and other words as to the last" and where "special reasons exist for so construing the clause in question." Id., at 348, 40 S.Ct. 516. In United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488 (1971), this Court declined to apply the rule of the last antecedent where "there is no reason consistent with any discernable purpose of the statute to apply" the limiting phrase to the last antecedent alone. Id., at 341, 92 S.Ct. 515. Likewise, in Jama, the Court suggested that the rule would not be appropriate where the "modifying clause appear[s]... at the end of a single, integrated list." 543 U.S., at 344, n. 4, 125 S.Ct. 694. And, most recently, in Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1710, 188 L.Ed.2d 714 (2014), the Court noted that the rule need not be applied "in a mechanical way where it would require accepting `unlikely premises.'" Id., at ___, 134 S.Ct., at 1721.
But in none of those cases did the Court describe, much less apply, a countervailing grammatical mandate that could bear the weight that either Lockhart or the dissent places on the series qualifier principle. Instead, the Court simply observed that sometimes context weighs against the application of the rule of the last antecedent. Barnhart, 540 U.S., at 26, 124 S.Ct. 376. Whether a modifier is "applicable as much to the first ... as to the last" words in a list, whether a set of items form a "single, integrated list," and whether the application of the rule would require acceptance of an "unlikely premise" are fundamentally contextual questions.
Lockhart attempts to identify contextual indicia that he says rebut the rule of the last antecedent, but those indicia hurt rather than help his prospects. He points out that the final two state predicates, "sexual abuse" and "abusive sexual conduct," are "nearly synonymous as a matter of everyday speech." Brief for Petitioner 17. And, of course, anyone who commits "aggravated sexual abuse" has also necessarily committed "sexual abuse." So, he posits, the items in the list are sufficiently similar that a limiting phrase could apply equally to all three of them.
But Lockhart's effort to demonstrate some similarity among the items in the list of state predicates reveals far too much similarity. The three state predicate crimes are not just related on Lockhart's reading; they are hopelessly redundant. Any conduct that would qualify as "aggravated sexual abuse ... involving a minor or ward" or "sexual abuse ... involving a minor or ward" would also qualify as "abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." We take no position today on the meaning of the terms "aggravated sexual abuse," "sexual abuse," and "abusive sexual conduct," including their similarities and differences. But it is clear that applying
Applying the limiting phrase "involving a minor or ward" more sparingly, by contrast, preserves some distinction between the categories of state predicates by limiting only the third category to conduct "involving a minor or ward." We recognize that this interpretation does not eliminate all superfluity between "aggravated sexual abuse" and "sexual abuse." See United States v. Atlantic Research Corp., 551 U.S. 128, 137, 127 S.Ct. 2331, 168 L.Ed.2d 28 (2007) ("[O]ur hesitancy to construe statutes to render language superfluous does not require us to avoid surplusage at all costs. It is appropriate to tolerate a degree of surplusage"). But there is a ready explanation for the redundancy that remains: It follows the categories in Chapter 109A's federal template. See supra, at 964. We see no similar explanation for Lockhart's complete collapse of the list.
The dissent offers a suggestion rooted in its impressions about how people ordinarily speak and write. Post, at 969-971. The problem is that, as even the dissent acknowledges, § 2252(b)(2)'s list of state predicates is hardly intuitive. No one would mistake its odd repetition and inelegant phrasing for a reflection of the accumulated wisdom of everyday speech patterns. It would be as if a friend asked you to get her tart lemons, sour lemons, or sour fruit from Mexico. If you brought back lemons from California, but your friend insisted that she was using customary speech and obviously asked for Mexican fruit only, you would be forgiven for disagreeing on both counts.
Faced with § 2252(b)(2)'s inartful drafting, then, do we interpret the provision by viewing it as a clear, commonsense list best construed as if conversational English? Or do we look around to see if there might be some provenance to its peculiarity? With Chapter 109A so readily at hand, we are unpersuaded by our dissenting colleague's invocation of basic examples from day-to-day life. Whatever the validity of the dissent's broader point, this simply is not a case in which colloquial practice is of much use. Section 2252(b)(2)'s list is hardly the way an average person, or even an average lawyer, would set about to describe the relevant conduct if they had started from scratch.
Lockhart next takes aim at our construction of § 2252(b)(2) to avoid disparity between the state and federal sexual-abuse predicates. He contends that other disparities between state and federal predicates in § 2252(b)(2) indicate that parity was not Congress' concern. For example, § 2252(b)(2) imposes the recidivist enhancement on offenders with prior federal convictions under Chapter 71 of Title 18, which governs obscenity. See §§ 1461-1470. Yet § 2252(b)(2) does not impose a similar enhancement for offenses under state obscenity laws. Similarly, § 2252(b)(2)'s neighbor provision, § 2252(b)(1), creates a mandatory minimum for sex trafficking involving children, but not sex trafficking involving adults.
However, our construction of § 2252(b)(2)'s sexual-abuse predicates does not rely on a general assumption that Congress sought full parity between all of the federal and state predicates in § 2252(b)(2). It relies instead on contextual
Lockhart, joined by the dissent, see post, at 973-974, next says that the provision's legislative history supports the view that Congress deliberately structured § 2252(b)(2) to treat state and federal predicates differently. They rely on two sources. The first is a reference in a Report from the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 3009-26. That Act was the first to add the language at issue here — "aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward" — to the U.S. Code. (It was initially added to § 2252(b)(1), then added two years later to § 2252(b)(2)).
The Report noted that the enhancement applies to persons with prior convictions "under any State child abuse law or law relating to the production, receipt or distribution of child pornography." See S.Rep. No. 104-358, p. 9 (1996). But that reference incompletely describes the state pornography production and distribution predicates, which cover not only "production, receipt, or distributing of child pornography," as the Report indicates, but also "production, possession, receipt, mailing, sale, distribution, shipment, or transportation of child pornography," § 2252(b)(2). For the reasons discussed, we have no trouble concluding that the Report also incompletely describes the state sexual-abuse predicates.
Lockhart and the dissent also rely on a letter sent from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the House of Representative's Committee on the Judiciary commenting on the proposed "Child Protection and Sexual Predator Punishment Act of 1998." H.R.Rep. No. 105-557, pp. 26-34 (1998). In the letter, DOJ provides commentary on the then-present state of §§ 2252(b)(1) and 2252(b)(2), noting that although there is a "5-year mandatory minimum sentence for individuals charged with receipt or distribution of child pornography and who have prior state convictions for child molestation" pursuant to § 2252(b)(1), there is "no enhanced provision for those individuals charged with possession of child pornography who have prior convictions for child abuse" pursuant to § 2252(b)(2). Id., at 31. That letter, they say, demonstrates that DOJ understood the language at issue here to impose a sentencing enhancement only for prior state convictions involving children.
We doubt that DOJ was trying to describe the full reach of the language in § 2252(b)(1), as the dissent suggests. To the contrary, there are several clues that the letter was relaying on just one of the provision's many salient features. For instance, the letter's references to "child molestation" and "child abuse" do not encompass a large number of state crimes that are unambiguously covered by "abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward" — namely, crimes involving "wards." Wards can be minors, but they can also be adults. See, e.g., § 2243(b) (defining "wards" as persons who are "in official detention" and "under ... custodial, supervisory, or disciplinary authority"). Moreover, we doubt that DOJ intended to express a belief that the potentially broad scope of serious crimes encompassed by
Thus, Congress' amendment to the provision did give "DOJ just what it wanted," post, at 973. But the amendment also did more than that. We therefore think it unnecessary to restrict our interpretation of the provision to the parts of it that DOJ chose to highlight in its letter. Just as importantly, the terse descriptions of the provision in the Senate Report and DOJ letter do nothing to explain why Congress would have wanted to apply the mandatory minimum to individuals convicted in federal court of sexual abuse or aggravated sexual abuse involving an adult, but not to individuals convicted in state court of the same. The legislative history, in short, "hardly speaks with [a] clarity of purpose" through which we can discern Congress' statutory objective. Universal Camera Corp. v. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 483, 71 S.Ct. 456, 95 S.Ct. 456 (1951).
The best explanation Lockhart can muster is a basic administrability concern: Congress "knew what conduct it was capturing under federal law and could be confident that all covered federal offenses were proper predicates. But Congress did not have the same familiarity with the varied and mutable sexual-abuse laws of all fifty states." Brief for Petitioner 27. Perhaps Congress worried that state laws punishing relatively minor offenses like public lewdness or indecent exposure involving an adult would be swept into § 2252(b)(2). Id., at 28. But the risk Lockhart identifies is minimal. Whether the terms in § 2252(b)(2) are given their "generic" meaning, see Descamps v. United States, 570 U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 186 L.Ed.2d 438 (2013); Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 110 S.Ct. 2143, 109 L.Ed.2d 607 (1990), or are defined in light of their federal counterparts — which we do not decide — they are unlikely to sweep in the bizarre or unexpected state offenses that worry Lockhart.
Finally, Lockhart asks us to apply the rule of lenity. We have used the lenity principle to resolve ambiguity in favor of the defendant only "at the end of the process of construing what Congress has expressed" when the ordinary canons of statutory construction have revealed no satisfactory construction. Callanan v. United States, 364 U.S. 587, 596, 81 S.Ct. 321, 5 L.Ed.2d 312 (1961). That is not the case here. To be sure, Lockhart contends that if we applied a different principle of statutory construction — namely, his "series-qualifier principle" — we would arrive at an alternative construction of § 2252(b)(2). But the arguable availability of multiple, divergent principles of statutory construction cannot automatically trigger the rule of lenity. Cf. Llewellyn, Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decision and the Rules or Canons About How Statutes Are To Be Construed, 3 Vand. L. Rev. 395, 401 (1950) ("[T]here are two opposing canons on almost every point"). Here, the rule of the last antecedent is well supported by context and Lockhart's alternative is not. We will not apply the rule of lenity to override a sensible grammatical principle buttressed by the statute's text and structure.
* * *
We conclude that the text and structure of § 2252(b)(2) confirm that the provision applies to prior state convictions for "sexual abuse" and "aggravated sexual abuse," whether or not the convictions involved a minor or ward. We therefore hold that Lockhart's prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult is encompassed by
Justice KAGAN, with whom Justice BREYER joins, dissenting.
Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet "an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie." You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast — not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander. Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client "a house, condo, or apartment in New York." Wouldn't the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California? And consider a law imposing a penalty for the "violation of any statute, rule, or regulation relating to insider trading." Surely a person would have cause to protest if punished under that provision for violating a traffic statute. The reason in all three cases is the same: Everyone understands that the modifying phrase — "involved with the new Star Wars movie," "in New York," "relating to insider trading" — applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last.
That ordinary understanding of how English works, in speech and writing alike, should decide this case. Avondale Lockhart is subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing child pornography if, but only if, he has a prior state-law conviction for "aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2). The Court today, relying on what is called the "rule of the last antecedent," reads the phrase "involving a minor or ward" as modifying only the final term in that three-item list. But properly read, the modifier applies to each of the terms — just as in the examples above. That normal construction finds support in uncommonly clear-cut legislative history, which states in so many words that the three predicate crimes all involve abuse of children. And if any doubt remained, the rule of lenity would command the same result: Lockhart's prior conviction for sexual abuse of an adult does not trigger § 2252(b)(2)'s mandatory minimum penalty. I respectfully dissent.
Begin where the majority does — with the rule of the last antecedent. See ante, at 962. This Court most fully discussed that principle in Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (2003), which considered a statute providing that an individual qualifies as disabled if "he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id., at 21-22, 124 S.Ct. 376 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)) (emphasis added). The Court held, invoking the last-antecedent rule, that the italicized phrase modifies only the term "substantial gainful work," and not the term "previous work" occurring earlier in the sentence. Two points are of especial note. First, Barnhart contained a significant caveat: The last-antecedent rule "can assuredly be overcome by other indicia of meaning." 540 U.S., at 26, 124 S.Ct. 376; see, e.g., Nobelman v. American Savings Bank, 508 U.S. 324, 330-331, 113 S.Ct. 2106, 124 L.Ed.2d 228 (1993) (refusing to apply the rule when a contrary interpretation was "the more reasonable one"). Second, the grammatical structure of the provision in Barnhart is nothing like that of the statute in this case: The modifying phrase does not, as here, immediately follow a list of multiple, parallel terms. That is true as well in the other
Indeed, this Court has made clear that the last-antecedent rule does not generally apply to the grammatical construction present here: when "[t]he modifying clause appear[s] ... at the end of a single, integrated list." Jama, 543 U.S., at 344, n. 4, 125 S.Ct. 694. Then, the exact opposite is usually true: As in the examples beginning this opinion, the modifying phrase refers alike to each of the list's terms. A leading treatise puts the point as follows: "When there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series," a modifier at the end of the list "normally applies to the entire series." A. Scalia & B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 147 (2012); compare id., at 152 ("When the syntax involves something other than [such] a parallel series of nouns or verbs," the modifier "normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent"). That interpretive practice of applying the modifier to the whole list boasts a fancy name — the "series-qualifier canon," see Black's Law Dictionary 1574 (10th ed. 2014) — but, as my opening examples show, it reflects the completely ordinary way that people speak and listen, write and read.
Even the exception to the series-qualifier principle is intuitive, emphasizing both its common-sensical basis and its customary usage. When the nouns in a list are so disparate that the modifying clause does not make sense when applied to them all, then the last-antecedent rule takes over. Suppose your friend told you not that she wants to meet "an actor, director, or producer involved with Star Wars," but instead that she hopes someday to meet "a President, Supreme Court Justice, or actor involved with Star Wars." Presumably, you would know that she wants to meet a President or Justice even if that person has no connection to the famed film franchise. But so long as the modifying clause "is applicable as much to the first and other words as to the last," this Court has stated, "the natural construction of the language demands that the clause be read as applicable to all." Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. ___, ___, 134 S.Ct. 1710, 1721, 188 L.Ed.2d 714 (2014) (quoting Porto Rico Railway, Light & Power Co. v. Mor, 253 U.S. 345, 348, 40 S.Ct. 516, 64 S.Ct. 944 (1920)). In other words, the modifier then qualifies not just the last antecedent but the whole series.
As the majority itself must acknowledge, see ante, at 964-965, this Court has repeatedly applied the series-qualifier rule in just that manner. In Paroline, for example, this Court considered a statute requiring possessors of child pornography to pay restitution to the individuals whose abuse is recorded in those materials. The law defines such a victim's losses to include
United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 92 S.Ct. 515, 30 L.Ed.2d 488 (1971), to take just one other example, followed the same rule. There, the Court confronted a statute making it a crime for a convicted felon to "receive[ ], possess[ ], or transport[ ] in commerce or affecting commerce ... any firearm." 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a) (1970 ed.) (current version at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)). The Government contended that the modifying clause — "in commerce or affecting commerce" — applied only to "transport" and not to "receive" or "possess." But the Court rebuffed that argument. "[T]he natural construction of the language," the Court recognized, "suggests that the clause `in commerce or affecting commerce' qualifies all three antecedents in the list." 404 U.S., at 339, 92 S.Ct. 515 (some internal quotation marks omitted). Relying on longstanding precedents endorsing such a construction, the Court explained: "Since `in commerce or affecting commerce' undeniably applies to at least one antecedent, and since it makes sense with all three, the more plausible construction here is that it in fact applies to all three." Id., at 339-340, 92 S.Ct. 515 (citing United States v. Standard Brewery, Inc., 251 U.S. 210, 218, 40 S.Ct. 139, 64 S.Ct. 229 (1920); Porto Rico Railway, 253 U.S., at 348, 40 S.Ct. 516); see also, e.g., Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848, 853, 120 S.Ct. 1904, 146 L.Ed.2d 902 (2000) (similarly treating the interstate commerce element in the phrase "any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce" as applying to buildings and vehicles).
That analysis holds equally for § 2252(b)(2), the sentencing provision at issue here. The relevant language — "aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward" — contains a "single, integrated list" of parallel terms (i.e., sex crimes) followed by a modifying clause. Jama, 543 U.S., at 344, n. 4, 125 S.Ct. 694. Given the close relation among the terms in the series, the modifier makes sense "as much to the first and other words as to the last." Paroline, 572 U.S., at ___, 134 S.Ct., at 1721. In other words, the reference to a minor or ward applies as well to sexual abuse and aggravated sexual abuse as to abusive sexual conduct. (The case would be different if, for example, the statute established a mandatory minimum for any person previously convicted of "arson, receipt of stolen property, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.") So interpreting the modifier "as applicable to all" the preceding terms is what "the natural construction of the language" requires. Ibid.; Bass, 404 U.S., at 339, 92 S.Ct. 515.
The majority responds to all this by claiming that the "inelegant phrasing" of
The majority as well seeks refuge in the idea that applying the series-qualifier canon to § 2252(b)(2) would violate the rule against superfluity. See ante, at 965-966. Says the majority: "Any conduct that would qualify as `aggravated sexual abuse... involving a minor or ward' or `sexual abuse ... involving a minor or ward' would also qualify as `abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.'" Ante, at 965. But that rejoinder doesn't work. "[T]he canon against superfluity," this Court has often stated, "assists only where a competing interpretation gives effect to every clause and word of a statute." Microsoft
Legislative history confirms what the natural construction of language shows: Each of the three predicate offenses at issue here must involve a minor. The list of those crimes appears in two places in § 2252(b) — both in § 2252(b)(1), which contains a sentencing enhancement for those convicted of distributing or receiving child pornography, and in § 2252(b)(2), which includes a similar enhancement for those (like Lockhart) convicted of possessing such material. Descriptions of that list of offenses, made at the time Congress added it to those provisions, belie the majority's position.
The relevant language — again, providing for a mandatory minimum sentence if a person has a prior state-law conviction for "aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward" — first made its appearance in 1996, when Congress inserted it into § 2252(b)(1). See Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, § 121(5), 110 Stat. 3009-30, 18 U.S.C. § 2251 note. At that time, the Senate Report on the legislation explained what the new language meant: The mandatory minimum would apply to an "offender with a prior conviction under... any State child abuse law." S.Rep. No. 104-358, p. 9 (1996) (emphasis added). It is hard to imagine saying any more directly that the just-added state sexual-abuse predicates all involve minors, and minors only.
Two years later, in urging Congress to include the same predicate offenses in § 2252(b)(2), the Department of Justice (DOJ) itself read the list that way. In a formal bill comment, DOJ noted that proposed legislation on child pornography failed to fix a statutory oddity: Only § 2252(b)(1), and not § 2252(b)(2), then contained the state predicates at issue here. DOJ described that discrepancy as follows: Whereas § 2252(b)(1) provided a penalty enhancement for "individuals charged with receipt or distribution of
The majority's response to this history fails to blunt its force. According to the majority, the reference to "any state child abuse law" in the Senate Report is simply an "incomplete descri[ption]" of "the state sexual-abuse predicates." Ante, at 967. And similarly, the majority ventures, the DOJ letter was merely noting "one of the provision's many salient features." Ibid. But suppose that you (like the Senate Report's or DOJ letter's authors) had to paraphrase or condense the statutory language at issue here, and that you (like the majority) thought it captured all sexual-abuse crimes. Would you then use the phrase "any state child abuse law" as a descriptor (as the Senate Report did)? And would you refer to the whole list of state predicates as involving "sexual abuse of a minor" (as the DOJ letter did)? Of course not. But you might well use such shorthand if, alternatively, you understood the statutory language (as I do) to cover only sexual offenses against children. And so the authors of the Report and letter did here. Such documents of necessity abridge statutory language; but they do not do so by conveying an utterly false impression of what that language is most centrally about — as by describing a provision that (supposedly) covers all sexual abuse as one that reaches only child molestation.
And the majority (as it concedes) cannot claim that Congress simply must have wanted § 2252(b)(2)'s federal and state predicates to be the same. See ante, at 966 ("[O]ur construction of § 2252(b)(2)'s sexual-abuse predicates does not rely on a general assumption that Congress sought full parity between all of the federal and state predicates"). That is because both § 2252(b)(1) and § 2252(b)(2) contain many federal predicates lacking state matches. Under § 2252(b)(1), for example, a person is subject to a mandatory minimum if he previously violated 18 U.S.C. § 1591, which prohibits "[s]ex trafficking of children or [sex trafficking] by force, fraud, or coercion." But if the prior conviction is under state law, only sex trafficking of children will trigger that minimum; trafficking of adults, even if by force, fraud, or coercion, will not. That mismatch — trafficking of both adults and children on the federal side, trafficking of children alone on the state side — precisely parallels my view of the sexual-abuse predicates at issue here. More generally, ten federal obscenity crimes trigger both § 2252(b)(1)'s and § 2252(b)(2)'s enhanced punishments; but equivalent state crimes do not do so. And five federal prostitution offenses prompt mandatory minimums under those provisions; but no such state offenses do. Noting those disparities, the Government concedes: "[W]hen Congress adds state-law offenses to the lists of predicate offenses triggering child-pornography recidivist enhancements, it sometimes adds state offenses corresponding to only a subset of the federal offenses" previously included. Brief for United States 43. Just so. And this Court ought to enforce that choice.
As against the most natural construction of § 2252(b)(2)'s language, plus unusually limpid legislative history, the majority relies on a structural argument. See ante, at 963-965. The federal sexual-abuse predicates in § 2252(b)(2), the majority begins, are described as crimes "under ... Chapter 109A," and that chapter "criminalizes a range of sexual-abuse offenses involving adults or minors." Ante, at 963-964 (emphasis in original). Once again, the majority cannot say that this fact alone resolves the question presented, given the many times (just discussed) that Congress opted to make federal crimes, but not equivalent state crimes, predicates for § 2252(b)(2)'s mandatory minimums. But
But § 2252(b)(2)'s state predicates are not nearly as similar to the federal crimes in Chapter 109A as the majority claims. That Chapter includes the following offenses: "Aggravated sexual abuse," § 2241, "Sexual abuse," § 2242, "Sexual abuse of a minor or ward," § 2243, and "Abusive sexual contact," § 2244. The Chapter thus contains four crimes — one more than found in § 2252(b)(2)'s list of state offenses. If the drafters of § 2252(b)(2) meant merely to copy Chapter 109A, why would they have left out one of its crimes? The majority has no explanation.
Indeed, even the Government has refused to accept the notion that the federal and state sexual-abuse predicates mirror each other. The Government, to be sure, has argued that it would be "anomalous" if federal, but not state, convictions for sexually abusing adults trigger § 2252(b)(2)'s enhanced penalty. Brief for United States 23. (I have discussed that more modest point above: Anomalous or not, such differences between federal and state predicates are a recurring feature of the statute. See supra, at 967-968.) But the Government, in both briefing and argument, rejected the idea that Congress wanted the list of state predicates in § 2252(b)(2) to mimic the crimes in Chapter 109A; in other words, it denied that Congress meant for the state and federal offenses to bear the same meaning. See Brief for United States 22, n. 8; Tr. of Oral Arg. 26. Even in the face of sustained questioning from Members of this Court, the Government held fast to that
The majority seems to think that view somehow consistent with its own hypothesis that Chapter 109A served as a "template" for § 2252(b)(2)'s state predicates, ante, at 964; in responding to one of Lockhart's arguments, the majority remarks that the state predicates might have a "generic" meaning, distinct from Chapter 109A's, ante, at 968. But if that is so, the majority's supposed template is not much of a template after all. The predicate state offenses would "follow" or "parallel" Chapter 109A in a single respect, but not in any others — that is, in including sexual abuse of adults, but not in otherwise defining wrongful sexual conduct (whether concerning adults or children). Ante, at 964. The template, one might say, is good for this case and this case only. And the majority has no theory for why that should be so: It offers not the slimmest explanation of how Chapter 109A can resolve today's question but not the many issues courts will face in the future involving the meaning of § 2252(b)(2)'s state predicate offenses. That is because no rationale would make sense. The right and consistent view is that Chapter 109A, like the other federal predicates in § 2252(b)(2), is across-the-board irrelevant in defining that provision's state predicates. Thus, the federal chapter's four differently worded crimes are independent of the three state offenses at issue here — all of which, for the reasons I've given, must "involv[e] a minor or ward."
Suppose, for a moment, that this case is not as clear as I've suggested. Assume there is no way to know whether to apply the last-antecedent or the series-qualifier rule. Imagine, too, that the legislative history is not quite so compelling and the majority's "template" argument not quite so strained. Who, then, should prevail?
This Court has a rule for how to resolve genuine ambiguity in criminal statutes: in favor of the criminal defendant. As the majority puts the point, the rule of lenity insists that courts side with the defendant "when the ordinary canons of statutory construction have revealed no satisfactory construction." Ante, at 968 (citing Callanan v. United States, 364 U.S. 587, 596, 81 S.Ct. 321, 5 L.Ed.2d 312 (1961)); see also Bifulco v. United States, 447 U.S. 381, 387, 100 S.Ct. 2247, 65 L.Ed.2d 205 (1980) (holding that the rule of lenity "applies not only to interpretations of the substantive ambit of criminal prohibitions, but also to the penalties they impose"). At the very least, that principle should tip the scales in Lockhart's favor, because nothing the majority has said shows that the modifying clause in § 2252(b)(2) unambiguously applies to only the last term in the preceding series.
But in fact, Lockhart's case is stronger. Consider the following sentence, summarizing various points made above: "The series-qualifier principle, the legislative history, and the rule of lenity discussed in this opinion all point in the same direction." Now answer the following question: Has only the rule of lenity been discussed in this opinion, or have the series-qualifier principle and the legislative history been discussed as well? Even had you not read the preceding 16-plus pages, you would know the right answer — because of the
The majority makes the identical mistake in asserting that the DOJ letter merely "highlight[s]" one of § 2252(b)(1)'s many features. Ante, at 967. To support that claim, the majority notes that the letter omits any discussion of sexual crimes against adult wards, even though the statute covers those offenses on any theory. But that elision is perfectly natural. The number of sex crimes against adult wards pales in comparison to those against children: In discussing the latter, DOJ was focused on the mine-run offense. (For the same reason, this opinion's descriptions of § 2252(b) often skip any reference to wards. See supra, at 965, 966; infra, at 975. Count that as a writer's choice to avoid extraneous detail.) The majority cannot offer any similar, simple explanation of why DOJ would have repeatedly referred only to sex crimes against children if the statutory language it was explicating — and proposing to add to another provision — also covered sex crimes against all adults.