Ejusdem Generis and Statutory Construction

April 15, 2021 5:33 PM | Carson Griffis (Administrator)

By:  John M. Fitzgerald

Words, like people, are known by the company they keep. This principle has been recognized in legal decisions for a very long time. This principle can help to unravel even the most perplexing ambiguities that appear on the face of statutes, regulations, contracts, wills, trusts, insurance policies, and even constitutional provisions. It is a principle with which more lawyers should be familiar.

In its most narrow manifestation, the “doctrine of ejusdem generis provides that when a statutory clause specifically describes several classes of persons or things and then includes ‘other persons or things,’ the word ‘other’ is interpreted as meaning ‘other such like.’”  People v. Davis, 199 Ill. 2d 130, 138 (2002) (citation omitted). More broadly, “where general words follow particular and specific words in a statute, the general words must be construed to include only things of the same kind as those indicated by the particular and specific words, and this rule is enforced in the construction of a statute, unless there is something in the statute or its context which shows that the doctrine of ejusdem generis should not be applied.” Bullman v. City of Chi., 367 Ill. 217, 226 (1937) (internal citations omitted).

“The reason for the rule is that if the legislature had intended that the general words apply without restriction, it would have used only ‘one compendious word.’” Brink's, Inc. v. Ill. Commerce Comm'n, 108 Ill. App. 3d 186, 190 (1982) (citation).  And the rule is versatile: “The application of the rule is not limited to statutes but extends to wills and other instruments.”  Id.

By way of illustration, the Illinois Supreme Court was once tasked with deciding whether a BB gun constituted a category I weapon for purposes of the Criminal Code. The Code defined a category I weapon to include “a pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, spring gun, or any other firearm, sawed-off shotgun, a stun gun or taser as defined in paragraph (a) of Section 24–1 of this Code, knife with a blade of at least 3 inches in length, dagger, dirk, switchblade knife, stiletto, or any other deadly or dangerous weapon or instrument of like nature.”  People v. Davis, 199 Ill. 2d 130, 133 (2002) (quoting the Code; emphasis added).  A BB gun did not meet the statutory definition of a firearm, and applying the ejusdem generis doctrine and the rule of the last antecedent, the Supreme Court held that “any other deadly or dangerous weapon or instrument of like nature” referred “only to weapons or instruments ‘such like’ the class of blade-type weapons which immediately preceded the clause in the provision, i.e., weapons or instruments that are sharp and have the ability to cut or stab.”  Id. at 139.  Because a BB gun was not like any of those blade-type weapons, it did not fall within the statutory definition’s catch-all clause for “any other deadly or dangerous weapon or instrument of like nature” and did not qualify as a category I weapon.  Id.

Similarly, when the Human Rights Act prohibited discrimination in a “public place of accommodation,” and that term was statutorily defined to include a long list of examples (such as “restaurants,” “hotels” and “public swimming pools”) as well as “other places of public accommodation and amusement,” that residual clause was held not to include an educational program at a university.  Bd. of Trs. of S. Ill. Univ. v. Dep't of Human Rights, 159 Ill. 2d 206, 211 (1994). The “examples listed in the Act are fundamentally different from institutions of higher education, which administer educational programs. The cited list of establishments are examples of facilities for overnight accommodations, entertainment, recreation or transportation. . . . Thus, what was anticipated by the General Assembly is a restaurant, or a pub, or a bookstore. What was not anticipated is an academic program of a higher education institution.”  Id. at 211–12. (The Human Rights Act was subsequently amended to expressly include undergraduate and postgraduate schools.)

The doctrine accommodates a “common drafting technique designed to save the legislature from spelling out in advance every contingency in which the statute could apply.” Pooh-Bah Enters., Inc. v. Cnty. of Cook, 232 Ill. 2d 463, 492 (2009) (citing 2A N. Singer & J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutory Construction § 47:17, at 370–73 (7th ed. 2007)). It is particularly appropriate because a drafter may not be able to spell out “every contingency” in advance, either because some contingencies are unforeseen, or because spelling out each contingency would have negative consequences.  For example, if the legislature is prohibiting something, spelling out each contingency might create “easy ways around the definition” and thereby provide a roadmap for evasion. Id. Citing the Singer treatise, the Supreme Court explained that the ejusdem generis doctrine “is justified on the ground that, if the general words were given their full and ordinary meaning, the specific words would be superfluous as encompassed by the general terms,” but if “the legislature had meant the general words to have their unrestricted sense, it would not have used the specific words.” Id.

In short, the doctrine – like most canons of construction – reflects a judicial effort to recognize the limitations of language and the challenges inherent in drafting.

DISCLAIMER: The Appellate Lawyers Association does not provide legal services or legal advice. Discussions of legal principles and authority, including, but not limited to, constitutional provisions, statutes, legislative enactments, court rules, case law, and common-law doctrines are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.

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