Dictionaries and the Law – Hunting, Poaching, and the Right to Food

The Law Court’s recent decision in Parker v. Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is fascinating—it is a rare instance when the Court has been called upon to interpret and apply a new constitutional provision. The Maine Constitution has had relatively few amendments, but in 2021 Maine voters approved a “Right to Food Amendment.” Parker involved a challenge to Maine’s Sunday hunting law prohibition under the new amendment.

As is relevant here, the amendment provides that “[a]ll individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to … grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing” for certain purposes, including nourishment. It then enumerates limitations on this right, conditioning the right on the requirement that the individual not commit “trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources.”

The question in the case was whether the Maine law banning hunting on Sundays infringes on this right. In an interesting ruling, the Law Court said it did not. After reaching the straightforward conclusion that the plaintiffs could present a justiciable claim given the State’s denial of their request for a Sunday hunting permit, the Court took up the merits—and in so doing, raised some intriguing questions.

First, the Court accorded the Sunday hunting statute a presumption of constitutionality—even though the statute predated the constitutional amendment. But why? Normally the presumption accords the Legislature credit for seeking to act in accordance with existing constitutional limits. That rationale, the Court acknowledged, did not apply. The Court instead suggested that there are other reasons for according this presumption, but relied on cases stating that facial constitutional challenges are disfavored because they lack robust factual records and pose the risk of overbroad rulings. Those concerns seem to go to the particular vehicle for the challenge, not the presumed validity of the enactment itself. Isn’t the right answer, then, to apply the appropriate standard for facial challenges rather than apply a presumption? That point is at least debatable.

Second, the Court’s analysis of the amendment’s language raises interesting interpretive questions. The Court concluded that the term “harvest” includes hunting. The Court buttressed this conclusion by citing several authorities, including dictionary definitions, its own prior precedent, and statutory definitions. Based on these authorities, the Court reasoned, the amendment does include a right to hunt. The Court then observed that this right is subject to express limitations, including that the right does not include engaging in “poaching.” Citing dictionary definitions only, the Court then reasoned that the term “poaching” includes any illegal hunting. Thus, the Court held that the right to hunt does not include the right to hunt on Sundays, because the Legislature has made hunting on Sundays illegal.

One could imagine a potential criticism—does the reasoning in Parker render the right to hunt under the amendment meaningless? If the amendment is meant to protect the right to hunt, but does not circumscribe any law that renders hunting illegal, does the amendment protect hunting at all?

There are arguable critiques of the Court’s reliance on dictionary definitions. Two definitions cited, from Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s II New College Dictionary, suggest a broad definition of the term that includes any illegal taking of game. But query whether that is the ordinary understanding of the term. Various dictionaries, including Merriam Webster and Cambridge, suggest a primary meaning of “poaching” that relates to illegality in the manner in which the game is taken—i.e., taking game while encroaching on the land of another. Indeed, the Court’s citation to Black’s Law Dictionary, which defines poaching as the illegal taking of game “on another’s land,” supports this ordinary reading. At the very least, the availability of a narrower common meaning suggests the need for careful reliance on dictionaries, including analysis of primary definitions and the word’s context.

As Justice Scalia and Brian Garner note in Reading Law, the availability of multiple meanings for common words places great importance on evaluating not just to dictionary definitions but also the word’s context to determine its most likely meaning.  Here, there are multiple hints at the word’s meaning to be found in the amendment’s context. The amendment itself references poaching and “other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources.” The reference to “other abuses of private property” renders a definition of “poaching” that requires some sort of trespass more likely. And broader context might suggest the same; as mentioned above, a reading of “poaching” that includes any law rendering hunting illegal seems (at first blush) to render the amendment circular, and thus meaningless at least in part—a result that is generally discouraged. Of course, there may be rejoinders, but Parker does not provide them.

As Parker illustrates, constitutional and statutory interpretation requires careful, contextual analysis, and it is incumbent on attorneys to equip the Court with thorough arguments. That’s what a good appellate brief—whether by a party or by an interested party filing an amicus—is for. But for now, Parker answers a narrow question under the Right to Food amendment, while leaving many other questions about its scope and application open.