In an interesting 5-4 ruling yesterday on statutory interpretation, the US Supreme Court held that an exception to the Federal Torts Claim Act that grants immunity to “any officer of customs or excise or any other law enforcement officer” applies to “all law enforcement officers.” Justice Thomas’ majority opinion in Ali v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, ruled that law enforcement officers who steal prisoners’ personal property while engaged in their official duties are immune from lawsuits brought by prison inmates. The Court split 5-4, with Justice Thomas authoring the majority opinion joined by Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Ginsburg. Justice Kennedy wrote the main dissent, joined by Stevens, Souter and Breyer.
The New York Times in an article by Linda Greenhouse noted the unusual line-up of Justices as well the Court’s internal disagreement regarding how to engage in statutory interpretation. The article highlighted Justice Kennedy’s dissenting opinion, in which he wrote “the Court’s analysis cannot be squared with the longstanding recognition that a single word must not be read in isolation but instead defined by reference to its statutory context.”
At issue was the meaning of the phrase “any other law enforcement officer.” Did Congress mean to confer blanket immunity for property-related offenses on the part of any federal law enforcement officer? Or was the immunity limited to officers engaged in tax or customs work? The answer was sufficiently ambiguous that of the 11 federal circuits of appeals to address the issue, six had interpreted the exception as applying broadly to all officers, and five had read it narrowly to apply only to property seizures connected to revenue or customs enforcement