Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545, 12 (2002)

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556

HARRIS v. UNITED STATES

Opinion of Kennedy, J.

Petitioner's suggestion that we use the canon to avoid overruling one of our own precedents is novel and, given that McMillan was in place when 924(c)(1)(A) was enacted, unsound. The avoidance canon rests upon our "respect for Congress, which we assume legislates in the light of constitutional limitations." Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U. S. 173, 191 (1991). The statute at issue in this case was passed when McMillan provided the controlling instruction, and Congress would have had no reason to believe that it was approaching the constitutional line by following that instruction. We would not further the canon's goal of eliminating friction with our coordinate branch, moreover, if we alleviated our doubt about a constitutional premise we had supplied by adopting a strained reading of a statute that Congress had enacted in reliance on the premise. And if we stretched the text to avoid the question of McMillan's continuing vitality, the canon would embrace a dynamic view of statutory interpretation, under which the text might mean one thing when enacted yet another if the prevailing view of the Constitution later changed. We decline to adopt that approach.

As the avoidance canon poses no obstacle and the interpretive circumstances point in a common direction, we conclude that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, 924(c)(1)(A) defines a single offense. The statute regards brandishing and discharging as sentencing factors to be found by the judge, not offense elements to be found by the jury.

III

Confident that the statute does just what McMillan said it could, we consider petitioner 's argument that 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) is unconstitutional because McMillan is no longer sound authority. Stare decisis is not an "inexorable command," Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U. S. 393, 405 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting), but the doctrine is "of fundamental importance to the rule of law," Welch v. Texas

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