Today marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of United States v. Kirby. The Kirby case stands for the simple proposition that statutes must be construed in a reasonable way to prevent absurd contradictions.
The case behind Kirby highlights why a decision regarding the reasonable construction of statutes was required. In 1867 Mr. Farris, a federal mail carrier was arrested aboard a steamboat for a murder in Gallatin County, Kentucky. However, a Federal judge then signed a bench warrant for the Sheriff of Gallatin county after obtaining an indictment for his arrest on the charge of “knowingly and willfully obstructing or retarding the passage of the mail” in violation of “The Act of March 3, 1825”.
The Sheriff, believing that this could not possibly be the correct application of the law sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court in late 1867 and was granted Cert that same month.
The Argument at the Supreme Court was Simple, Sheriff Kirby argued that the intent of “The Act of March 3. 1825” could not possibly have been to make it a crime to arrest a mail carrier who had committed a crime.
The State argued that a strict reading of the statute made the Sheriffs actions a crime within the meaning of the act.
On April 15th, 1868, the Supreme Court rendered its decision. The unanimous Court led by Justice Stephen Johnson Field held that the sheriff had not violated “The Act of March 3. 1825”. The Court went on to hold that all statutes must be constructed to read reasonably and to prevent absurd results that could not possibly have been what the legislature wanted or envisioned.
The Kirby case, while quaint from our modern perspective, established a fundamental legal principle for statutory construction. When one construes a statute, it must be read in a reasonable way that fits with the legislative intent. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure that unreasonably construed statutes are not used to prosecute you.
Written by Hunter J. White
 United States v. Kirby, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 482 (1868)