Revisiting a Classic Problem in Statutory Interpretation: Is a Minister a Laborer?

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
Publication year2020
CitationVol. 36 No. 5

Revisiting a Classic Problem in Statutory Interpretation: Is a Minister a Laborer?

Tammy Gales

Hofstra University,

Lawrence M. Solan

Brooklyn Law School,

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Tammy Gales* & Lawrence M. Solan**


This study presents a new analysis of an iconic United States Supreme Court case, Holy Trinity Church v. United States (1892). The question in Holy Trinity Church concerned whether a law making it illegal to pay the transportation of a person entering the U.S. under contract to perform "labor or service of any kind" applied to a wealthy Manhattan church that had paid to bring its new rector from England to New York. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law did not apply to the church's contract, relying first on the ordinary meaning of "labor" and second on the legislative history of the single construction "labor or service."

Highlighting the use of corpus linguistic methods, this study tests the arguments presented by the Court and reveals new insights through an analysis of historic and contemporary reference corpora and a specialized corpus of U.S. statutes. The results demonstrate that the disjunctive phrase "labor or service" appeared to be a legal term of art with narrow interpretation that would exclude clergy, but around the time of Holy Trinity Church, slight variations on the phrase (e.g., pluralization, conjunction, and modification) applied to contexts with

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broader meaning. When examining "labor" as an independent term, those who labored were generally not clergy and the description of the activities of clergy was typically not described as labor, although examination evidenced instances of both. The findings demonstrate the importance of consulting corpora in the evaluation of statutory and ordinary meaning and considering the sociohistorical contexts in which it occurs.


Our goal in this article is to demonstrate how the use of linguistic corpora in historical cases—when used with proper caution—can add significantly to conventional tools of statutory interpretation, especially in cases in which meaning may have changed over time. In doing so, we use the methods described by Lee and Mouritsen1 as a springboard to make new contributions to the study of Holy Trinity Church v. United States2 —perhaps the most studied United States case engaging methods of statutory interpretation.

Holy Trinity Church concerned whether a law making it illegal to pay the transportation of a person entering the U.S. under a contract "to perform labor or service of any kind" applied to a wealthy Manhattan church that paid to bring its new rector from London to New York.3 In 1892, the Supreme Court decided the answer to the issue was no.4 Justice Brewer's opinion for a unanimous Court relied, as its first argument, on the Justices' sense of the typical use of the relevant language.5

Because of its two later arguments, relying on legislative history to respond to the fact that the list of exceptions did not include members of the clergy6 and recognizing that Congress—knowing that the U.S.

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was founded as a Christian nation—would be unlikely to have intended to impede religion so aggressively,7 the case has received great attention and continues to provoke debate as it rumbles through its second century.8 The fact that the first main argument is about ordinary meaning, a conventional argument at that, is sometimes lost in the literature.

The facts are as follows. In 1885, Congress passed the Alien Contract Labor Law.9 Section 1 contained the main provision:

[I]t shall be unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever, to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States, its Territories, or the District of Columbia, under contract or agreement, parol or special, express or implied, made previous to the importation or migration of such alien or aliens, foreigner or foreigners, to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States, its Territories, or the District of Columbia.10

Section 5 listed exceptions:

[N]or shall this act be so construed as to prevent any person, or persons, partnership, or corporation from engaging, under contract or agreement, skilled workman in foreign countries to perform labor in the United States in or upon any new industry not at present established in the United States: Provided, That skilled labor for that purpose cannot be otherwise obtained; nor shall the provisions of this act apply to professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers, nor to

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persons employed strictly as personal or domestic servants: Provided, That nothing in this act shall be construed as prohibiting any individual from assisting any member of his family or any relative or personal friend, to migrate from any foreign country to the United States, for the purpose of settlement here.11

In 1891, Congress added "ministers of any religious denomination, . . . persons belonging to any recognized profession," and "professors for colleges and seminaries" to the list of exceptions.12 But that was too late for Manhattan's Church of the Holy Trinity and the minister it hired from London under contract, the Reverend Doctor Edward Walpole Warren.13 The district court had already prosecuted and fined the church for violating the law in 1888.14

The church appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the law did not apply to the church's contract with its new clergyman. The Court first articulated this often-quoted statement about the interpretation of statutes:

It is a familiar rule that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit nor within the intention of its makers. This has been often asserted, and the Reports are full of cases illustrating its application. This is not the substitution of the will of the judge for that of the legislator; for frequently words of general meaning are used in a statute, words broad enough to include an act in question, and yet a consideration of the whole legislation, or of the circumstances surrounding its enactment, or of the absurd results which follow from giving such broad meaning to the words, makes it unreasonable to

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believe that the legislator intended to include the particular act.15

Though Brewer's reference to the "spirit" of the law may strike a discordant note to the modern ear,16 recognizing that laws might be drafted in language broader than that needed to serve their purpose stems back to Aristotle,17 and dealing with that reality remains a matter of considerable disagreement among judges and scholars today.18

The Court moved on to employ the ordinary meaning canon as its first interpretive argument:

The common understanding of the terms "labor" and "laborers" does not include preaching and preachers, and it is to be assumed that words and phrases are used in their ordinary meaning. So whatever of light is thrown upon the statute by the language of the title indicates an exclusion from its penal provisions of all contracts for the employment of ministers, rectors, and pastors.19

Yet, the Court recognized that the language of the statute was susceptible to an interpretation that extended beyond the evil that the statute was enacted to address, as had the enacting Congress.20 Not only was the term "labor or service of any kind" open to a broad interpretation (although such an interpretation would not have been preferred), but the list of exceptions then in effect also did not include members of the clergy.21 The canon expressio unius est exlusio alterius dictates that the passage of what appears to be a complete list of

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exceptions implies that items not listed are not exceptions.22 Unable to modify the bill without jeopardizing passage in the current session, the Senate Report predicted—as Justice Brewer noted—that the courts would not construe the statute more broadly than required to combat the evil that Congress enacted the law to address.23 The Court thus reversed the conviction unanimously.

I. Corpus Linguistic Analysis in Legal Interpretation

Fast forward 125 years. A number of legal scholars and judges have been collaborating with linguists to employ methods of corpus linguistics in the service of statutory and constitutional interpretation. The principal goal is to use big data that is representative of a particular variety of language as a source of information about ordinary meaning in the realm of statutes and original public meaning in constitutional argument. Among other things, this partnership has produced a symposium in the BYU Law Review,24 a number of amicus briefs filed in U.S. Supreme Court cases, and a 2018 article in the Yale Law Journal by Thomas C. Lee and Stephen R. Mouritsen, Judging Ordinary Meaning.25 Lee is Associate Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court and a former full-time member of the Brigham Young University law faculty.26 Mouritsen is Lee's former student and law clerk and is trained in the methods of corpus linguistics.27

The principal argument has been one of drawing inferences of ordinary meaning based upon the relative frequency of one usage over another with respect to a disputed term. For example, in Costello v. United States,28 Judge Posner, using Google News, determined that the

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verb "to harbor," when used with a human object, generally implies an effort to hide an individual, such as harboring Jews from the Nazis.29 He thus held that a woman living with her undocumented boyfriend did not "harbor" him in violation of a federal statute, absent evidence that she attempted to help hide him from the authorities.30 And Justice Lee has used corpus analysis in a number...

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