last antecedent rule

Primary tabs

Last antecedent rule is a doctrine where a court interprets a qualifying clause to refer to the immediately preceding words or phrases. For example, when interpreting the phrase “letters or emails drafted by a clerk,” a court would read the qualifying modifier “drafted by a clerk” as referring to “emails” but not “letters.”  

The Supreme Court first referenced the rule in the 1799 decision in Sims’ Lessee v. Irvine, where the Court decided an action for ejectment based on a title dispute in Pennsylvania. The Court noted that the rule was not to be strictly applied but to be used as an “aid in construction.” 

Recent Supreme Court decisions have revealed the arbitrariness of the rule, where Justices disagreed over whether to apply the rule in interpreting ambiguous clauses. In United States v. Hayes, Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, and Justice Roberts, in dissenting opinion, were divided on how to properly interpret the statutory provision on firearm possession. Justice Ginsburg refused to apply the rule so that the phrase “domestic relationship” was not an element of the offense, whereas Justice Roberts argued that the phrase was a required element of the offense following the rule.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]