Walker v. Superior Court, S.F. 24996

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation47 Cal.3d 112,253 Cal.Rptr. 1,763 P.2d 852
Decision Date10 November 1988
Docket NumberS.F. 24996
Parties, 763 P.2d 852, 57 USLW 2375 Laurie Grouard WALKER, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Sacramento County, Respondent; The PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest.

Page 1

253 Cal.Rptr. 1
47 Cal.3d 112, 763 P.2d 852, 57 USLW 2375
Laurie Grouard WALKER, Petitioner,
The SUPERIOR COURT of Sacramento County, Respondent;
The PEOPLE, Real Party in Interest.
S.F. 24996.
Supreme Court of California,
In Bank.
Nov. 10, 1988.
Rehearing Denied Jan. 5, 1989.

[47 Cal.3d 118]

Page 4

[763 P.2d 855] Scofield & Volk, Thomas A. Volk and Robert G. Scofield, Sacramento, for petitioner.

Warren Christopher, Robert C. Vanderet, Robert M. Schwartz, O'Melveny & Myers, Los Angeles, Margaret Crosby, Alan Schlosser, Edward Chen, San Francisco, Paul L. Hoffman, Carol A. Sobel, Mark Rosenbaum, Los Angeles, Mary Ann Yurkonis, Santa Monica, David E. Mackenroth and Mackenroth, Seley & Anwyl, Sacramento, as amici curiae on behalf of petitioner.

No appearance for respondent.

John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Steve White, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., John H. Sugiyama, Asst. Atty. Gen., David D. Salmon and Clifford K. Thompson, Jr., Deputy Attys. Gen., for real party in interest.

Hassard, Bonnington, Rogers & Huber, David E. Willett and Catherine I. Hanson, San Francisco, as amici curiae on behalf of real party in interest.

MOSK, Justice.

We consider in this case whether a prosecution for involuntary manslaughter (Pen.Code, § 192, subd. (b)) and felony child endangerment (id., § 273a, subd. (1)) can be maintained against the mother of a child who died of meningitis after receiving treatment by prayer in lieu of medical attention. We conclude that the prosecution is permitted by statute as well as the free exercise and due process clauses of the state and federal Constitutions.

Defendant Laurie Grouard Walker is a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist (hereafter the Church). Her four-year-old daughter, Shauntay, fell [47 Cal.3d 119] ill with flu-like symptoms on February 21, 1984, and four days later developed a stiff neck. Consistent with the tenets of her religion, defendant chose to treat the child's illness with prayer rather than medical care. 1 Defendant contacted an accredited Christian Science prayer practitioner who thereafter prayed for Shauntay and visited the child on two occasions. Defendant also engaged a Christian Science nurse who attended Shauntay on February 27 and again on March 6 and 8. 2 Shauntay nevertheless lost weight, grew disoriented and irritable during the last week of her illness, and died on March 9 of acute purulent meningitis after a period of heavy and irregular breathing. During the 17 days she lay ill, the child received no medical treatment.

Page 5

The People charged defendant with involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangerment based on allegations that her criminal negligence proximately caused [763 P.2d 856] Shauntay's death. Defendant moved to dismiss the prosecution (Pen.Code, § 995) on the grounds that (1) her conduct was specifically protected by law, and (2) the statutes under which she had been charged failed to provide fair notice that her conduct was criminal. The court denied her motion.

Defendant petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ of prohibition and a stay. (Pen.Code, § 999a.) The petition and stay request were summarily denied, and defendant petitioned for review in this court. We granted the petition and transferred the matter to the Court of Appeal with directions to issue an alternative writ of prohibition. After further briefing and oral argument, the Court of Appeal again denied defendant's petition. She thereafter filed a second petition for review in this court, which we also granted.

[47 Cal.3d 120] Defendant and amici curiae offer a variety of statutory and constitutional arguments in support of their claim that the prosecution of defendant under Penal Code section 192, subdivision (b) (hereafter section 192(b)), and section 273a, subdivision (1) (hereafter section 273a(1)), is barred as a matter of law. For the reasons set forth below, we reject their contentions and conclude that defendant can be prosecuted as charged.

I. Statutory Contentions

A. Section 270 as a complete defense to prosecution

Defendant first contends that the provisions of Penal Code section 270 (hereafter section 270) provide a complete defense to any prosecution based on her treatment of Shauntay's illness with prayer rather than medical care. Section 270 enumerates certain necessities that parents must furnish their children and imposes misdemeanor liability for the failure to do so. As enacted in 1872, the statute provided that "Every parent of any child who willfully omits, without lawful excuse, to perform any duty imposed upon him by law, to furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter, or medical attendance for such child, is guilty of a misdemeanor." (Pen.Code (1st ed. 1872) § 270.) The Legislature amended the provision in 1925 by inserting the phrase "or other remedial care" after "medical attendance." (Stats.1925, ch. 325, § 1, p. 544.) The statute was again amended in 1976 to specify that "treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone" constitutes "other remedial care." (Stats.1976, ch. 673, § 1, p. 1661.) 3


As a threshold consideration we must ascertain whether prayer treatment constitutes an acceptable substitute for medical care under the terms of section 270, as defendant contends. If it does not, then a fortiori the statute provides no defense to prosecutions under separate manslaughter and child endangerment provisions for the use of prayer in lieu of medicine. This determination hinges on whether "other remedial care," defined in section 270 to include prayer, represents an alternative to "medical attendance" or rather identifies a distinct and additional necessity that parents must provide their children.

[47 Cal.3d 121] In People v. Arnold (1967) 66 Cal.2d 438, 452, 58 Cal.Rptr. 115, 426 P.2d 515, we considered the contention that section 270 allows parents to provide children with "an accepted alternative to medical attendance: 'other remedial care,' namely enemas, compresses, and prayer." The case involved the appeal of a mother convicted of misdemeanor-manslaughter after unsuccessfully

Page 6

treating her child's illness with prayer. Although reversing on unrelated grounds, the Arnold court summarily rejected in dictum the defendant's interpretation of section [763 P.2d 857] 270, reasoning that "The phrase 'other remedial care' ... does not sanction unorthodox substitutes for 'medical attendance'; it indicates one of the multiple necessities which the parent must provide." (Ibid.)

While the Arnold decision predates the 1976 amendment specifying that "other remedial care" includes prayer, the court's reasoning remains fatal to a defense based on treatment by spiritual means: regardless of its content, "other remedial care" constitutes "one of the multiple necessities" under Arnold, thus operating in addition to rather than in lieu of the responsibility to furnish medical attendance. Because the 1976 amendment "did not address the contention [in Arnold ] that other remedial care could not act as a substitute to standard medical treatment," the Court of Appeal in the case at bar concluded that defendant's provision of prayer did not supplant her separate responsibility to furnish medical care under section 270.

Well-settled principles guide our review of the statutory analysis set forth in Arnold and embraced by the decision below. " ' "The fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citations.]" ' In determining such intent, the court turns first to the words of the statute. '[W]here ... the language is clear, there can be no room for interpretation.' " (Regents of University of California v. Public Employment Relations Bd. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 601, 607, 224 Cal.Rptr. 631, 715 P.2d 590, citations omitted.)

Section 270 requires that parents "furnish necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical attendance, or other remedial care...." In our view, this language is sufficiently clear to reject the dictum in Arnold and conclude that the Legislature intended "other remedial care" to constitute a substitute for "medical attendance." We begin by noting the repetition of "or" to introduce both "medical attendance" and "other remedial care." The first use of the word, preceding "medical attendance," denotes that clothing, food, shelter, and medical attendance represent distinct necessities each of which must be provided a child; it would be superfluous if the succeeding phrase, "or other remedial care," introduced yet another necessity into the statutory scheme. We have often observed that courts [47 Cal.3d 122] should give significance to every word, phrase, and sentence of an act, and that any construction rendering certain words surplusage should be avoided. (Palos Verdes Faculty Assn. v. Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School Dist. (1978) 21 Cal.3d 650, 659, 147 Cal.Rptr. 359, 580 P.2d 1155.) To give significance to the initial use of the word "or," its second use must be taken to mean that "other remedial care" operates as an alternative to the immediately preceding phrase rather than as an additional necessity appended to the entire sentence in the manner of an afterthought.

The definition of certain pivotal words in the statute bolsters this interpretation. "Remedial" is defined as "affording a remedy: intended for a remedy or for the removal or abatement of a disease or of an evil." (Webster's New Internat. Dict. (3d ed. 1961) p. 1920.) "Remedy," in turn, is defined as "something that relieves or cures a disease: a medicine or application that serves or helps to terminate disease and restore health." (Ibid.) Finally, "other" is defined as "not the same: different." (Id. at p. 1598.) When these definitions are substituted for the words of the statute, the provision penalizes parents who fail to provide "clothing, food, shelter or medical attendance, or [different] care [intended to relieve or cure a...

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