Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Article Index

A. Textual Analysis

Textually, the convict exception to the Thirteenth Amendment applies only to conditions of involuntary servitude and not to slavery. The rule of last the antecedent, a canon of judicial interpretation, requires that a clause "should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately This canon, however, may be applied flexibly and subordinate to other interpretation principles, such as eliminating absurdities and nullities and reading the statute as a whole.

Applying the rule of last the antecedent to the convict-labor exception raises the question of whether the exception modifies slavery and involuntary servitude or only the term involuntary servitude. In other words, what exactly is counted as the preceding noun or phrase? One court has noted that when terms are separated by a disjunctive conjunction (such as "or") and the last term is followed by a modifying clause, then the modifying clause applies only to the last term and not the term preceding the disjunctive conjunction. The convict-labor exception is immediately preceded by "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude." "Nor" is considered a disjunctive conjunction, and accordingly, the convict-labor exception should apply only to conditions of servitude and not to conditions of slavery. Furthermore, an interpretation of the convict-labor exception that applies to both slavery and involuntary servitude leads to a legal absurdity. Such a reading of the Amendment perversely implies that rather than abolish slavery in its entirety, the government abolished only private slavery, while monopolizing and sanctioning government-imposed slavery. This interpretation is squarely at odds with the intent of Congress at the time, as evidenced in the debates preceding the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.