I wasn’t going to post about this, but everybody and their brother (and my brother, for that matter) sent me links about it, so I guess I have to. Fortunately, Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org has done an excellent post on the topic that begins:
The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. […]
The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.
To my knowledge, O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy is the first legal case that involves this particular use of the comma, and the courts ruled here that the punctuation is not dispositive. In other words, the Oxford comma cannot, at least in and of itself, be taken as determinative of meaning. In this, the news reports have been getting it wrong—whether or not one uses the Oxford comma just doesn’t matter all that much, in law or anywhere else.
And in between are all the details you could want, unless you want enough details to go to the decision itself (the third link — the second is to the NY Times story). Much as I would like to see a victory for the Oxford comma (in the same way I like to see the Mets or Huskies win), this is not such a victory. It’s just another labor dispute. (Insert your own joke about truckin’ or spilt milk.)