Ressam, the High Court, And the Meaning of Is

tom.jpg Hillier

So there they were today, Attorney General Michael Mukasey hisownself, and Seattle federal public defender Tom Hillier, standing before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing whether it was persmissible to extend the prison sentence of the guy who ruined everyone’s night out Dec. 31, 1999, at the Space Needle.

“The question in this case is whether a panel of the Ninth Circuit was correct when it added the words ‘in relation to,’ and thereby added an element to [federal law] section 844 of Title 18, and we think for at least four reasons, the answer to that question is no," said Mukasey.

And that's in context. The esoteric debate, you see, was over whether the wording of applicable law allows ten years to be added to the term of would-be millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, currently doing 22 years at Colorado’s Supermax federal pen for planning to set off a bomb at LAX. (His arrest alone caused cancellation of NY's fun at the Needle).

“General Mukasey," said Hillier, “put his finger on the point here when he said we wanted to charge a lead-pipe cinch case. But in doing so, what we now have is what was a terrorism prosecution and a choice to link the underlying felony -- or to link the carrying explosives charges exclusively to count 5 of the indictment…And I would disagree that that's what Congress thought…when it was creating this statute."

The justices -- who will issue a decision somewhere down the road -- grilled both sides about the law’s wording and intent, and the government’s charging decision. At times, it got down to the nitty of one of those what-the-meaning-of-is-is issues, such as when Chief Justice John Roberts mused that some words may have a “temporal relationship" to others.

You can read, if not puzzle over, today’s arguments here.

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