The Meaning of ‘The:’ Makes ‘All the Difference’

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Capitol building in Washington.

We’ve already been through the meaning of “is” in Washington.

So what is the meaning of “the?”

It definitely is different from “a.”

So said the federal appeals court in Washington today, rejecting President Barack Obama’s recess appointments of members to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board because the Senate wasn’t in recess at the time.

“When interpreting a constitutional provision, we must look to the natural meaning of the text as it would have been understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution,” the judges wrote. “Then, as now, the word “the” was and is a definite article.”

And the court, in a ruling appropriately laced with traditional legal precedents for its findings, cited no less of an authority on this question of the meaning of “the”  than Samuel Johnson’s 1755-vintage “A Dictionary of the English Language” (which, fancy this, has its own @SJDictionary Twitter feed):

“The” is an “article denoting a particular thing,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concluded unanimously.

“Unlike  ‘a’ or ‘an,’  that definite article suggests specificity,” the three-judge panel ruled.

That means “the Recess” in the Constitution’s Recess Appointments Clause is limited to the period between one Congress and the next — and Congress had begun a new session when Obama made his NLRB appointments. Obama named the members on Jan. 4, 2012, while the Senate was holding one of its so-called pro-forma sessions that involve a single senator showing up every third day.

“As a matter of cold, unadorned logic, it makes no sense to adopt the… proposition that when the Framers said ‘the Recess,’ what they really meant was “a recess,”’ Judge David Sentelle explained. “This is not an insignificant distinction. In the end it makes all the difference.”

This ruling would appear to lend much more certainty to the question at hand than the query posed by former President Bill Clinton, when he was deposed about sexual relations with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky: ``It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

 Bloomberg’s Tom Schoenberg, Steve Geimann and Jon Morgan contributed to this report.


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