Words count in law, with case rulings on important matters in Ohio and elsewhere sometimes hinging on legal interpretations surrounding a single word.
Or sometimes two, as evidenced in a major employment law case decided just last week by the United States Supreme Court. In the court’s first issued ruling of its current term, the tribunal gave clear meaning in a unanimous 8-0 decision to the words “also means.”
Those words appear in the seminal Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967. That legislation authored more than half a century ago provides explicit protections to Americans aged 40 years and older. The law originally stated that its application was limited to private employers with at least 20 workers.
A subsequent amendment to the ADEA several years later expanded worker safeguards. The change stressed that the definition of an employer “also means” a state or political subdivision within it.
Those two words clouded rather than cleared up the parameters of the law’s application for the next 40-plus years. As a recent Washington Post article on the ADEA notes, “Lower courts disagreed about whether that meant any government unit was covered by the law or only those of 20 or more employees.”
The nation’s highest court sought to remove all ambiguity with last week’s ruling. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the tribunal’s decision, stressing within it that the “the ordinary meaning of ‘also means’ is additive rather than clarifying.”
The implications of that ruling are far from being purely academic. The court’s decision immediately affected two Arizona firefighters who alleged they were unlawfully fired from their jobs because of their age. Their case can now proceed.