Recently, in both the professional journals of opinion and the blogosphere I’ve noticed arguments that are highly dependent on extremely narrow readings of federal law, often hinging on grammatical or stylistic errors. I was particularly shocked, for example, to read an article by Laurence Tribe on the likely constitutionality of a trillion dollar platinum coin. There was another article (I’ve forgotten the author’s name) whose argument hinged on the punctuation of the Second Amendment.
The problem with these analyses is that our legal system just doesn’t work that way. We have a common law system in which judges interpret the law every day. Their interpretations generally don’t hinge on punctuation. That might be the case in other legal systems but not ours. If laws were being interpreted that strictly our society would have collapsed a century ago.
In the particular case of the trillion dollar platinum coin, the law that people have been reading is a law about bullion coins. “Bullion coins” are coins sold, whatever their face value, for amounts based on the actual value of the metal from which they’re made. The one ounce American Gold Eagle, for example, has a face value of $50 and today sells for around $1,700, based on the value of the gold that’s in it. In my view the intent of Congress can reasonably be inferred from the law and its intent was not to empower the Treasury to mint a one ounce $1 trillion platinum coin. Astonishingly, Professor Tribe apparently thinks otherwise.
Could the Treasury mint a one ounce platinum coin with a face value of $1 trillion under present law? Would it? Would the courts uphold its use with a value of $1 trillion in payment of the bills that Congress is racking up? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions but I suspect that the answer to all of them is “No”.