Is a corporation a person under the federal mail-threat statute, my friend?

United States v. Carlson, No. 14-1780 (8th Cir. June 2, 2015). 

A federal statute makes it a crime to use the mails to extort or threaten “any person.” Does “any person” include any corporation? Thats the question the Eighth Circuit decided today. 

The majority of the panel notes that the statute generally uses the term “person” to mean a human being or a human being’s body: e.g., “kidnap any person,” “threat[en] to injure the person of the addressee,” “a deceased person.” This context, according to the majority, indicates that “person” means a natural person, and does not include a corporation. A statute, it says, is presumed to use the same word to mean the same thing. And contrast this mail-threat statute with a statute, passed two years later, that prohibits threats in interstate commerce: In that statute, Congress specified that the target of the threat could be “any person, firm, association or corporation.” When Congress wanted to include a corporation in a threat statute, the majority reasons, it knew how to do so. Yet it didn’t do so here. 

Judge Loken dissents. He relies in part on legislative history. More significantly, perhaps, he also notes that the Dictionary Act of 1871—the law that was effective when the mail-threat statute was first enacted—provides that in federal statutes “person” should be interpreted to include a corporation unless context indicates otherwise. (The current Dictionary Act provides the same thing.) Arguably, however, this line of argument evades the real question: Does context indicate otherwise here? 

Among other things, this case features a number of different interpretive canons butting up against each other. There’s the presumption that a word is used consistently throughout a statute. That perhaps favors the majority—but note that under the majoritys reading “person” is actually not used consistently: sometimes it means human being,” and sometimes it means “a human being’s body.” There’s also a presumption that when Congress uses particular language in one statute but omits it from a similar statute, the omission was intentional. That, too, favors the majority. But then there’s the presumption—which comes both from the canons and from the Dictionary Act—that “person” includes a corporation. That favors Judge Loken. 

There’s at least an arguable circuit split on the question presented here. While the Ninth Circuit agrees with the majority, the Fourth Circuit agrees (in its reasoning, if not perhaps in its precise holding) with Judge Loken. This case may be headed to the Supreme Court.