from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Texas
ELROD, WILLETT, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.
WILLETT, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Reed is a civilly committed sexually violent predator. Under
now-repealed Texas law, he had to pay for GPS monitoring or
else face criminal prosecution. Reed's sole income,
though, was Social Security. He contends that the
pay-or-be-prosecuted penalty violated the Social Security
Act's anti-attachment provision, 42 U.S.C. § 407(a),
which protects benefits from "execution, levy,
attachment, garnishment, or other legal process."
mistaken. His Social Security benefits were not executed on,
levied, attached, or garnished. And "other legal
process" is not a limitless catchall. The time-honored
ejusdem generis canon confines the phrase to
processes like those specifically enumerated. Section 407(a)
has a familiar specific-then-general syntactic construction
where the upfront enumeration limits the tagalong residual
phrase. In other words, "other legal process"
doesn't mean any process; it means other
similar process. And because the threat of criminal
prosecution differs materially from the specific processes
listed, we AFFIRM the district court's judgment.
Texas Office of Violent Sex Offender Management was
responsible for Reed's treatment and
supervision. Texas Health and Safety Code Chapter 841
and Reed's Order of Commitment require him to wear a GPS
tracking device. Chapter 841 also requires him to pay for
the tracking service. During the applicable period, failure to
pay was punishable as a third-degree felony.(The criminal
penalty was repealed in 2015.) The defendant officials each
implemented or enforced that statutory
requirement. Put differently, each official told Reed
he had to pay for GPS tracking or be liable for a felony.
"totally blind" and receives Social Security
disability benefits. For at least part of the applicable
time, Social Security was his only source of income. Reed
asserts that requiring him to pay for GPS monitoring under
threat of criminal prosecution subjected his Social Security
money to "other legal process" in violation of
§ 407(a). He sued the officials for damages under 42
U.S.C. § 1983.
district court granted summary judgment to the officials
based on qualified immunity, holding that the threat of
criminal prosecution wasn't "other legal
process" under clearly established law. Reed appealed.
We appointed counsel to assist Reed under the circuit's
pro bono program and deeply appreciate counsel's able
rules governing our consideration are familiar.
First, the standard of review. We review
immunity-based grants of summary judgment de
the summary-judgment standard. Under Rule 56, summary
judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
the qualified-immunity standard. "The doctrine of
qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so
long as their conduct 'does not violate clearly
established statutory or constitutional rights of which a
reasonable person would have known.'" "Once
invoked, a plaintiff bears the burden of rebutting qualified
immunity by showing two things: (1) that the officials
violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the
right was 'clearly established at the time of the
challenged conduct.'" Clearly established means that
"[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear
that a reasonable official would understand that what he is
doing violates that right." "The central concern
is whether the official has fair warning . . .
.""To answer that question in the
affirmative, we must be able to point to controlling
authority-or a 'robust consensus of persuasive
authority'-that defines the contours of the right in
question with a high degree of
question is straightforward: Did the GPS payment policy
subject Reed's Social Security benefits to
"execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other
legal process" in violation of § 407(a)? The
answer, equally straightforward, is no.
Constitution's ingenious architecture demands that judges
be sticklers when decoding legislative text. The law begins
with language, and the foremost task of legal interpretation
is divining what the law is, not what the
judge-interpreter wishes it to be.
score, our precedent favors bright lines and sharp corners,
including unswerving fidelity to statutory language:
"Text is the alpha and the omega of the interpretive
process." Judges are minders, not makers or
menders. All to say, we must take Congress at its word,
presume it meant what it said, and refuse to revise statutes
under the guise of interpreting them.
congressional handiwork is now and again imprecise-sometimes
inadvertently, sometimes intentionally. But judges rarely
need secret decoder rings to decrypt legislative language.
Statutory language, like all language, is suffused with
age-old interpretive conventions. And judges, like all
readers, must be attentive not to words standing alone but to
surrounding structure and other contextual cues that
case is about the legal interpretation of three
words-"other legal process"-but that task requires
us to discern the meaning of accompanying words and how they
are knit together. Robotic literal parsing can sometimes
cloak rather than clarify. In this case, familiar
linguistic clues-not to mention on-point Supreme Court
precedent-reveal § 407(a)'s semantic import as a
inquiry begins and ends with the text of § 407(a), which
limits the taking of Social Security benefits:
The right of any person to any future payment under this
subchapter shall not be transferable or assignable, at law or
in equity, and none of the moneys paid or payable or rights
existing under this subchapter shall be subject to
execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other
legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy
or insolvency law.
phrasing of the bolded language requires application of the
ejusdem generis canon: "[w]here general words
follow specific words in a statutory enumeration, the general
words are construed to embrace only objects similar in nature
to those objects enumerated by the preceding specific
words."Section 407(a) follows this familiar
semantic structure, meaning the follow-on phrase "other
legal process" is limited to processes like
"execution, levy, attachment, [or] garnishment."
Common phrasing; common-sense meaning. A broader reading
would "fail to give independent effect to the
statute's enumeration of the specific categories"
earlier in the sentence.
Supreme Court agrees. In Keffeler, the Court held
that the "usual rules of statutory construction"
require a "restrictive understanding of 'other legal
process.'" The issue was whether the state of
Washington could use children's Social Security benefits
to reimburse itself for their foster care. The
plaintiffs contended that this unlawfully subjected the
children's benefits to "other legal
process." The Court invoked both ejusdem
generis and noscitur a
sociis. It held that "other legal
process" in context means "process much like the
processes of execution, levy, attachment, and
garnishment" and so requires (1) "utilization of
some judicial or quasi-judicial mechanism," (2) "by
which control over property passes from one person to
another," (3) "to discharge or secure discharge of
an allegedly existing or anticipated
liability." So Washington's use of Social
Security money to offset foster care expenses was not
"other legal process." It did not use judicial or
quasi-judicial means; did not pass control of any funds
(which were already in the state's possession because it
had "representative payee" status under the Act);
and did not discharge an enforceable
Keffeler to this case, the specter of prosecution is
not "other legal process." Although the threat led
to a transfer of property, and arguably discharged a Chapter
841 liability, it did not use a judicial or quasi-judicial
mechanism. A threat of future action is not an "exercise
of some sort of judicial or quasi-judicial authority to gain
control over another's property" as
Keffeler puts it. Congress protected Social Security
beneficiaries from judicially enforced transfers, not threats
contrary cases are distinguishable or otherwise unpersuasive
in light of Keffeler. First are two other Supreme
Court cases interpreting § 407(a). In Philpott v.
Essex County Welfare Board, the Court prohibited New
Jersey from attaching a man's Social Security money to
secure his repayment of state welfare benefits. The Court held that this action
"was an attempt to subject the money to 'levy,
attachment . . . or other legal process'" and thus
violated § 407(a). Similarly, in Bennett v.
Arkansas the Court held that Arkansas could not
"attach certain federal [Social Security] benefits paid
to individuals who are incarcerated in Arkansas
Philpott and Bennett are distinguishable.
They do not interpret "other legal process."
Rather, as the Court explained in Keffeler,
"both Philpott and Bennett involved
judicial actions in which a State sought to attach a
beneficiary's Social Security benefits . . . . Unlike the
present case, then, both Philpott and