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6 Catt. 4: In re Hot People Food

2012 February 22

JEREMY, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Cart. CATTLEYA, J., delivered a separate concurrence.

Cartiorari was granted in this case on the question of Hot People Food’s (“HPF”) Hot People Dumplings. Today, I am faced with many important questions. There is, of course, the question of the Hot People Dumplings themselves. But before I may reach the substance of the matter, I am confronted with an interpretive question of constitutional proportions.

(N.B.: The first part of this decision is rather legalistic. If you are interested solely in a review of HPF’s Hot People Dumplings, click here to jump to Parts II and III of this opinion.)


As Publius wrote, “[w]hen the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” THE FEDERALIST No. 37 (Alexander Hamilton). And as Justice Holmes so wisely proclaimed, “[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.” Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918). In other words, language is a somewhat imperfect medium for communication. It is thus not surprising that the Cart is called upon once more to interpret an ambiguous text. See In re China Garden, 5 Catt. 1 (2012).

Hot People Food

In this case, the truck’s name, “Hot People Food,” can, of course, be interpreted in myriad different ways, chief among them:

  1. [[Hot People] Food], that is “food” that is intended for people who are (a) “hot” in terms of physical attraction, or (b) “hot” in terms of perceived or actual body temperature;
  2. [[Hot People] Food], that is “food” that is prepared by people who are (a) “hot” in terms of physical attraction, or (b) “hot” in terms of perceived or actual body temperature; or
  3. [Hot [People Food]], that is “people food” that is either (a) “hot” in terms of temperature, (b) “hot” in terms of spicing, or (c) “hot” in terms of excitement, as in: “Though time hadn’t dragged too heavily, what with talking and eating and drinking and three hot games of checkers between Wolfe and Saul, all draws, we were yawning.” Rex Stout, The Next Witness, in THREE WITNESSES 55 (1955).

“Hot People Food” may also be interpreted to mean warm and/or spicy Soylent Green, or Soylent Green made solely from warm, feverish, or attractive people, but, as a matter of policy, we of the Supreme Cart do not presume a mobile gastronomic enterprise (“MGE”) to deal in cannibalistic fair unless confronted with clear and convincing evidence.

There are, of course, other interpretations, too, due to the extensive polysemy of the term “hot.” “Hot” may also signify “stolen,” as in “I’ve got some ‘hot phones’ at the moment if you want to buy one cheap.” Urban Dictionary, hot, (as of Jan. 29, 2012, 16:13 GMT) (emphasis added). But as a matter of policy, we of the Supreme Cart do not presume a MGE offerings to be stolen unless confronted with clear and convincing evidence of illicit activity.

At base, then, I am confronted with a choice between [[Hot People] Food] and [Hot [People Food]]. As I explain, I must, as a matter of law and constitutional principle, conclude that “Hot People Food” references the latter.

The most convincing evidence for the interpretation [[Hot People] Food] comes from HPF’s own Facebook page, which contains the following:

And as far as the name? Yes, “hot” does refer to the people in Arlington.

“I thought in this downtown, everybody’s hot,” Liao. “No matter what you do, everybody’s hot.”

Facebook, Hot People Food, (as of Jan. 29, 2012, 16:58 GMT). This would seem to end at once the interpretive quandary. However, while an MGE’s interpretation of its own name may be entitled to some deference, its interpretation cannot be controlling. It is, after all, “emphatically the province of this Cart . . . ‘to say what the law is.’” In re Seoul Food, 3 Catt. 2 (2011) (quoting Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)).

To interpret a mobile gastronomic enterprise’s name, I today adopt the legal tests and holdings of the following line of Supreme Court cases: Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944); Chevron U.S.A, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984); and Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000).

Therefore, under our jurisprudence, where an MGE announces its interpretation of an ambiguous text informally, it is subject only to some deference under Skidmore. But where an MGE announces its interpretation of an ambiguous text more formally, its interpretation shall be binding upon this Cart under Chevron, so long as the text is ambiguous and the construction given it permissible. Cf. Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576 (2000).

In this case, HPF announced its interpretation on its Facebook page. I conclude that Facebook, like Twitter and an MGE’s own website, constitutes a place of “formal” pronouncement. Not only is Facebook public and official, it also allows for public commenting. Therefore, I pass to the two-step Chevron analysis.

Under Chevron, a court first determines “whether Congress has spoken directly to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court as well as the agency must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” Chevron U.S.A. v. NRDC, 467 U.S. 837, 842–843 (1984). In this case, of course, we deal with Arlington County, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and thus not with any Act of Congress. But because Arlington County must license an MGE, and therefore acquiesce to its chosen name, before the MGE may operate on the County’s streets, we attribute the naming of a truck to the County itself.

If the Cart determines that the name of the MGE is “silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific question,” the Cart “does not simply impose its own construction,” but rather determines whether “the [MGE’s] answer is based on a permissible construction of the [MGE’s name].” Id.

I have already answered the first inquiry. Yes, HPF’s name is ambiguous in that many differing meanings may be attributed to it. And so, I may pass safely to the second inquiry, that is, whether HPF’s interpretation, as announced formally on its Facebook page, is a “permissible construction.” I conclude that it is not.

In his concurrence in Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288 (1936), Justice Brandeis articulated seven prudent rules guiding application of the doctrine of constitutional avoidance. The seventh of those, culled from the Court’s earlier decision in Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22 (1932), states that “[w]hen the validity of an act of the Congress is drawn in question, and even if a serious doubt of constitutionality is raised, it is a cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be avoided.” I hereby adopt this sound doctrine as the law of this Cart and apply it in this case. I hold also that a MGE, which may only operate at the acquiescence of a public enterprise subject to the dictates of the Constitution, is likewise bound by this doctrine of constitutional avoidance.

In this case, interpreting “Hot People Food” to signify “food” for “hot people” would raise serious constitutional questions under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment states, in relevant part, that no State (or, in this case, Commonwealth) shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Either interpretation along the lines of [hot people [food]]—that is food prepared by or intended for only “hot” people—raises serious constitutional questions. This Cart has not yet decided whether “hotness,” in terms of body warmth but especially in terms of attractiveness, constitutes a suspect or quasi-suspect classification under the Equal Protection Clause, and, in this context, where the question may be altogether avoided, I refuse to do so. The MGE, held to this same doctrine of constitutional avoidance, should also have so refused.

I therefore find that the only prudent and permissible interpretation of “Hot People Food” is “people food” that is “hot” in terms of spicing, temperature, excitement, or any combination of the above. That question resolved, I may pass to substantive review of HPF’s Hot People Dumplings.


HPF’s “Hot People Dumplings” come in either of two varieties: (1) chicken and mushroom, or (2) pork and corn. (I shall call the latter “porn” dumplings in keeping with HPF’s naming practices: Pleasure Chips, Sassy Chicken, Bikini Beef, Pork Belly Dancer, Naked Vegetable with Tofu, Sexy Roll, Saucy Stick, and GolDDen Egg.) An order consists of fourteen dumplings and is accompanied by a small tub of soy or soy-vinegar sauce and a large cup of miso soup, for which one is charged a reasonable $7.99. I ordered half chicken and mushroom and half porn. I also ordered lychee juice, which I turn to in Subpart C below.

A. “Street Food”

First, under our analysis, I must address our test for “street food” first announced in In re Eat Wonky, 2 Catt. 5 (2011). In Eat Wonky, my sister wrote that “street food is “the kind[] of food[] that can be cooked in front of you and [is] meant to be eaten with your hands, without forks, while standing up.”

In this case, Hot People Dumplings are served with a fork and thus do not fully satisfy our “street food” test (though they could easily and cleanly be eaten with one’s fingers). However, dumplings are, in fact, a traditional street food in East Asia, and, despite the inclusion of a fork, are easily eaten on the street while standing upright. I therefore hold that our Eat Wonky test is not intended to affirmatively define the entire class of “street food,” but is rather intended only to be a multifactor test to guide and direct our analysis. Here, despite the inclusion of a fork, I find that HPF’s Hot People Dumplings indeed constitute “street food.”

Because HPF’s Hot People Dumplings constitute “street food,” we may presume that the case should be affirmed. That is, the MGE has made out its prima facie case that its dish should be affirmed, and so the burden of proving that the case should be remanded lies with the Supreme Cart. See In re Big Cheese, 6 Catt. 2 (2012). In this case, I find that presumption not to be rebutted here and thus affirm HPF’s Hot People Dumplings.

B. Dumplings

I now turn to the dumplings themselves. The two dumplings, steamed, tasted rather similar (except for the obvious and welcome addition of corn kernels in the porn dumplings), and so I consider both varieties together. There are two principal considerations: (1) the dumpling skin, and (2) the filling. I consider each in turn.

Skin. The clearly MGE-made dumpling skins were excellent: chewy and firm enough as to offer good mouthfeel, but not so chewy and firm as to overly strain one’s jaw. The skins lent themselves beautifully to steaming.

Filling. The fillings were mild in flavor but were indeed quite good. The unexpected corn kernels in the porn dumplings lent a nice sweetness and texture. The meat held up admirably to steaming and did not fall apart upon eating.

The only recommendation I might have is the addition of some sort of spice to the sauce, perhaps chili oil, but that is my own predilection and in no way detracts from the enjoyment or authenticity of the HPF experience.

C. Other Considerations

I am already prepared to affirm HPF’s Hot People Dumplings. However, several other considerations in HPF’s favor bear mentioning.

Lychee Juice. Along with the Hot People Dumplings, I ordered a can of lychee juice. Lychee is one of my favorite flavors in the international gastronome. I thus applaud HPF’s inclusion of lychee juice among its offerings.

Change. With the dumplings, lychee juice, and tax, my total came to a little over $10.00. I paid with a $20.00 bill. I thus expected $9.00 in change and some coins. I expected a $5.00 bill, four singles, and some coins. Instead, I received a $5.00, two $2.00 bills, and some coins. It is rare that one encounters the $2.00 bill, perhaps the nicest bill we have. I perhaps have some special affinity for the $2.00 given my period as a student at Mr. Jefferson’s University. I thus appreciate the novelty. Moreover, only that morning I had been discussing the rarity of the $2.00 with a clerk in my chambers. The serendipity of it all was exhilarating.

Service. I am usually not one to comment on service. In fact, as I have stated before, I often find that the best restaurants are those with long waits and terrible service. See In re El Floridano, 2 Catt. 2 (2011). However, at times especially good service is worth noting. See In re Doug the Food Dude, 5 Catt. 3 (2012). HPF’s service was gracious, generous, and an all around pleasure.

Acumen. HPF’s Facebook page notes that the MGE’s co-owners are recent high school graduates. Color me impressed.


It is therefore with pleasure that HPF’s Hot People Dumplings are


CATTLEYA, J., concurring in part.

I concur in Parts I, II.A, and III of the Cart’s opinion.

I concur in Part II.B of the Cart’s opinion only to the extent that it relates to HPF’s pork and corn dumplings. I liked these dumplings—but in the way that I like cheap Chinese food. Nothing fancy or out of the ordinary, but good nevertheless. I believe that the reader should disregard the Cart’s opinion on HPF’s chicken and mushroom dumplings, as I have, because HPF no longer sells chicken and mushroom dumplings.

I take no part in Part II.C of the Cart’s opinion because, inter alia, 1) I did not taste the canned lychee juice, as I prefer fresh lychees; and 2) I did not get any $2.00 bills back when I paid with a $20.00 bill.

I write separately to emphasize the completeness of HPF’s meal. I mean this in two ways. First, the dumplings were very filling because HPF portions out fourteen (yes, fourteen!) pieces. Second, HPF serves its dumplings with a bowl of miso soup and throws a piece of guava hard candy into the diner’s takeaway bag. Thus, I felt like I had a three-course meal. Although the quality of HPF’s miso soup was typical of any Japanese restaurant, it was nice to have as a starter. And I appreciated the guava hard candy, as it sweetened my palate at the end of the meal.

Hot People Dumplings

Finally, I would like to note that HPF offered me a sample of the fried version of their pork and corn dumpling. It was excellent. Because the dumpling skin was not too thick, it came out crispy and light. A full fourteen-piece order of HPF’s fried dumplings would be a delicious and indulgent treat. (With steamed and fried dumplings, HPF could be on its way to becoming a go-to dumpling truck. Now if only HPF would add soup dumplings to its menu . . .)

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