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Tomatoes and Burglars

December 5th, 2003 · No Comments

While shopping at Central Market yesterday, I read a small sign stuck among a pile of red produce and learned that the Supreme Court in 1893 determined that tomatoes were a vegetable. Coming home, I did a bit of Web research and found the actual court ruling . Much of the evidence appeared to be reading definitions from Webster’s. The court’s decision came out of a case where someone was trying to avoid paying tariff on imported tomatoes, attempting to elude the intent of the law that stated “vegetables”:
Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens…

Botanists on the one hand classifying tomatoes as fruit, and Supreme Court Justices on the other, defining them as vegetables.

Guess this shows what was proven earlier this week – that a legal dictionary is different from Webster’s….On the front page of Tuesday’s Seattle Times was an article describing how Jurors’ mistake is definition of misconduct : When the jurors went home after deliberating for several days, three of them looked up the definitions of two legal terms — “intent” and “burglary” — in their dictionaries. As a result, they wound up getting the verdict tossed out.

In a decision yesterday, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled that “by consulting home dictionaries for definitions of legal terms, this jury committed misconduct.” The court ordered a new trial for four men convicted in 2001 of burglary and assault.

So in science class the tomato is a fruit, but in the Supreme Court it’s a vegetable. Definition is dependent on context, or so it seems in our legal system. I never knew a dictionary could be so dangerous! Or have such a different definition from the law.

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