What Do a Techinical Criminal Case and an Obamacare Challenge Have In Common?

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What a legislature means isn’t always as easy as what it says. While that question has a much broader impact nationally, the Nebraska Supreme Court reiterated that principle in a criminal law case about probation and when a conviction can be set aside.

In State v. Kudlacz, an individual was placed on probation for a conviction for issuing a bad check, a misdemeanor. Part of his probation was that Mr. Kudlacz had to perform certain conditions, such as looking for employment and pay restitution. If he didn’t meet those conditions, his probation order required him to serve 90 days in the county jail on weekends.

Mr. Kudlacz initially failed some of his conditions, and ended up having to serve some of his jail time pursuant to his probation. But Mr. Kudlacz ultimately did successfully complete all of the terms of his probation. As a result, he asked the court for a hearing to set aside his conviction based on a Nebraska state law that allows a misdemeanor conviction to be set aside if all probation terms are successfully completed.

The State objected, saying that because Mr. Kudlacz spent some time in jail, he couldn’t have his conviction set aside. The State relied on language in a different case, McCray v. Nebraska State Patrol, which said that the statute in question “empowers a court to set aside certain criminal convictions in which the sentence does not include incarceration.” Because Mr. Kudlacz’s sentence included incarceration, the State argued, his sentence could not be set aside.

But the Supreme Court said that because McCray was about a sex offender and how a conviction that was already set aside affected him, the case wasn’t relevant for Mr. Kudlacz’s purposes. Instead, the Court looked at the language of the statue in question and the intent of the Legislature in passing the statute.

The full language of the statue in question reads as follows:

Whenever any person is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony and is placed on probation by the court or is sentenced to a fine only, he or she may, after satisfactory fulfillment of the conditions of probation for the entire period or after discharge from probation prior to the termination of the period of probation and after payment of any fine, petition the sentencing court to set aside the conviction.

To interpret a statute, a Court must first look to the language of the statute to see if there are any ambiguities, giving the language of the statute its plain and ordinary meaning. And, the Court must “determine and give effect to the purpose and intent of the Legislature as ascertained from the entire language of the statute considered in its plain, ordinary, and popular sense”

The Court found that the statute simply didn’t address that question of how to handle a jail sentence as a part of a probation order. The statute simply says that if a person successfully completes probation for a misdemeanor, that person can ask the court to set aside the conviction. If the Legislature had wanted to make it so people who spend time in jail as a part of probation could not get a sentence set aside, it could have. But because it did not, the Court found that the language of the statute allowed Mr. Kudlacz to request a hearing and ask for his conviction to be set aside.

This may sound like a very technical case involving the nuances of criminal law. But if you’ve heard about the recent challenge to the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as “Obamacare”) from federal district courts, the issue in those cases is exactly the same as what the Nebraska Supreme Court wrestled with in Kudlacz. Specifically, is a particular provision of the ACA ambiguous on its face, given the purpose and intent of Congress in passing the ACA.

So sometimes even the most mundane and technical cases can involve principles used in decisions that could affect millions of people across the country.

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