Published on: Monday, October 2, 2023

The Supreme Court opens its new 9-month term today with arguments in a case that considers what the meaning of the word “and” is in a provision of the First Step Act, an esoteric English lesson with real-world impact for thousands of federal prisoners (article available here).

Not since Bill Clinton told questioners that “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” has a simple word prompted such a dispute. What the justices decide could affect thousands of federal drug sentences each year. What’s more, it could affect thousands more seeking a retroactive zero-point reduction under the Guidelines.

The case, Pulsifer v. United States, is more than an exercise in sentence diagramming. Nearly 6,000 people convicted of drug trafficking in 2021 alone might be eligible for reduced sentences, according to the Sentencing Commission.

In today’s Supreme Court case, Petitioner Mark Pulsifer argues that he has to have four criminal history points which include both a prior 3-point offense and a 2-point violent offense in order to lose the benefit of the safety valve. The government says just one of the three conditions – 4 points or a 3-point prior or a 2-point violent crime – is enough.

The answer all depends on the meaning of “and.”