Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first ruling shows strict use of language

WASHINGTON — Newly installed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch followed the letter of the law in his first opinion Monday — a ruling that dealt with whether collectors of debts are in all cases “debt collectors.”

In a lively, 11-page unanimous ruling, Gorsuch said a law passed by Congress to guard against abusive, deceptive and unfair debt collection methods doesn’t apply to people trying to collect debts owed to themselves.

His reasoning had less to do with the practices of the profession than it did the precise meanings of words, the printed text of statutes, and the proper roles of Congress and the courts. Those are principles the 49-year-old justice has clung to throughout his career.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977 defines debt collectors as those seeking to collect debts owed to a third party. In the case at hand, a company bought defaulted auto loans and then sought to collect on them. It matters not, Gorsuch wrote for the court, that the company also sought to collect on third-party debts.

“This much doesn’t follow even as a matter of good grammar, let alone ordinary meaning,” he wrote. “Past participles like ‘owed’ are routinely used as adjectives to describe the present state of a thing — so, for example, burnt toast is inedible, a fallen branch blocks the path, and (equally) a debt owed to a current owner may be collected by him or her.”

Don’t take his word for it, Gorsuch said. He cited tomes such as The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Modern English Usage, and Oxford English Dictionary to back up his case.

The ruling didn’t please civil rights groups representing low-income and minority communities. “The court’s decision will incentivize the further expansion of a growing industry of companies that have been focused on the purchase of debt as a means to evading the important protections afforded by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Congress and states must act now to provide necessary protection for consumers.”

Gorsuch didn’t declare himself a fan of debt collectors. As was his reputation for a decade on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit before being nominated by President Trump to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, he simply ruled on the basis of what Congress wrote. Any remedy, he said, must come from lawmakers.

“Constant competition between constable and quarry, regulator and regulated, can come as no surprise in our changing world,” he said. “But neither should the proper role of the judiciary in that process — to apply, not amend, the work of the people’s representatives.”