We like dictionaries. A couple of them have treasured spots on our bookshelf. But we're not all that keen on courts relying upon dictionaries to define statutory terms, because our experience is that one word could have many meanings, and just because one dictionary defines a word a certain way doesn't rule out other meanings. And it doesn't provide much help about what a legislature meant when it used the word.
So we read a recent opinion issued by the California Court of Appeal, Friends of Oceano Dunes, Inc. v. San Luis Obispo Cnty. Air Pollution Control District, No. B248814 (Apr. 6, 2015) with some interest, even though the case was about California's version of the Clean Air Act, a topic that we must confess doesn't exactly float our boat. We liked the opinion because the court held that the trial court should not have relied on one dictionary's definition of the word "contrivance" to support the conclusion that the local air pollution control board could regulate emissions (blowing sand and dust) caused by off-road vehicles using a state park comprised of sand dunes and beaches.
California's statute allows local boards to establish a permit system regulating the building or use of "any article, machine, equipment, or other contrivance which may cause the issuance of air contaminants ..." Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "contrivance" as a man-made thing, and the trial court concluded the state park qualified because it had gates, fences, restrooms, and the like, all of which, obviously, were man-made.
Wrong, held the court of appeal, you don't go to the dictionary, but rather look to the other things listed in statute ("article, machine, equipment") and determine whether the contrivance -- like those items -- causes the "issuance of air contaminants."
Gates and fences don't cause air pollution: "But these improvements to the dunes are not the cause of the emissions. They do not directly or indirectly cause emissions and without them, off-road recreational vehicles would still go to the park."Slip op. at 8. So having those things doesn't make a state park a regulated "contrivance."
Consistent with the laudable goal of safeguarding the public health, the trial court "stretched" to find a dictionary definition of the word "contrivance" to describe a state park. As Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes said: "A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; It is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."
Slip op. at 1.