Judge puts "or" on trial

A Philadelphia judge kicked District Attorney candidate Seth Williams off the ballot last week for failing to disclose income. Williams says the money in question was for reimbursement of campaign expenses he paid himself , not income. Though most of the attention is focusing on whether this is standard practice, the debate really hinges on the word "or" in the law, according to an article from the Metro my dad sent me. The law defines income as "any money or thing of value received or to be received as a claim on future services or in recognition of services rendered in the past, whether in the form of a payment fee, salary, expense." In the Metro article, "Angry Grammarian" Jeffrey Barg writes:

The judge cited two (two!) different dictionaries on the definition of "or," saying it disjoins "any money," "anything of value received," "to be received as a claim on future services," etc. And because of  that, (Common Pleas Court Judge Allan L.) Tereshko said, the candidate's definition of "income" is all wrong.

The judge is saying that income is any money, and that the rest of the phrase doesn't matter. Each piece followed by an "or" stands independently, in the judge's mind. So it doesn't matter what Williams got the money for, even if it was a reimbursement for a campaign-related thing he paid for with his personal credit card. According to the judge, that's income. That's silly, both grammatically and logically.

Barg gives a more rational reading of the law:

Two problems here: First, "or" isn't acid -- it doesn't forever sever relationships between alternatives. Parentheses would make the cumbersome legalese a little clearer: "any money (or thing of value) received (or to be received) as a claim on future services (or in recognition of services rendered in the past) ... " Remove what's in parentheses and you get a better idea what the law is getting at.

That makes a lot more sense.