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Here’s how the legal saga over an Oxford comma unfolded

Chris Morris for The Boston Globe

Appeals judge David Barron

All eyes may be on Neil Gorsuch this week as his Supreme Court confirmation hearings get underway, but it is Boston federal appeals judge David Barron who has grammarians, English teachers, and copy editors everywhere still buzzing.

Barron is the author of a ruling that went viral last week when he wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

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The case centers around whether truck drivers working for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine were entitled to overtime. Barron sits on Boston’s First Circuit, a jurisdiction that covers Maine.

Writing on behalf of a three-member appeals court, Barron explained over 29 pages the relevance of a serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma. In doing so, he settled a fierce debate on whether the last comma in a list of three or more is necessary. For example, some people would omit the last comma in this series — bread, milk, and eggs. (Never in this paper, since Globe style favors the Oxford comma.)

In the dairy case, Barron and his fellow judges determined that the lack of an Oxford comma left ambiguous whether truck drivers are exempted from overtime. The appeals court sided with the drivers, overturning a lower court decision and entitling them to $10 million in back pay.

Barron’s opinion made national headlines generating stories in The New York Times, USA Today, Quartz, and even on TMZ. The New Yorker called the ruling “a feast of subtle delights for anyone with a taste for grammar and usage.”

Up until last week, Barron was the low-profile husband of Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert who is a fixture on CNN. She also ran for governor in 2014 and was a former Globe columnist.

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Barron is a former Harvard Law School professor who also worked for the Department of Justice in the Obama administration.

Barron declined comment, but he seems predisposed to proper punctuation. Last fall Simon & Schuster published his critically acclaimed book, “Waging War”, which chronicles the struggle between Congress and presidents over who can declare war.

Prior to his legal career, Barron spent several years as a reporter at the Raleigh News and Observer. Barron, who went to Harvard as an undergraduate and later for law school, was also president of the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. — SHIRLEY LEUNG

Two travel sites, two views

Kayak and TripAdvisor both have their origins in the Boston area, and both offer search engines designed for travelers. Now both have CEOs at odds with each other.

Kayak chief executive Steve Hafner and TripAdvisor chief executive Steve Kaufer — yes, they even have similar names — disagree about the success so far of TripAdvisor’s efforts to transform into an instant booking platform for hotels, restaurants and attractions.

In an interview earlier this month, Hafner publicly wondered about Kaufer’s job security to a reporter at the industry publication Skift.

Citing intensifying competition from Trivago and Google for bookings, along with “self-inflicted wounds” related to TripAdvisor’s instant booking rollout, Hafner threw shade Kaufer’s way.

“I know I wouldn’t keep my job at Kayak here for very long, if I were going down a similar track,” he said.

So is this a little friendly rivalry or a budding feud? Hafner also called Kaufer a “smart, long-term and strategic thinker who is making all the right moves in a tough category.”

When asked, Kaufer responded with a one-sentence statement.

“We have a great team investing in and building this company for the long term,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

A spokesman said TripAdvisor’s revenues per shopper have gone up, as have the numbers of hotel shoppers using the site’s instant booking feature. — MEGAN WOOLHOUSE

Defending Johnson law

If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’re probably hearing a lot lately about the Johnson Amendment.

Signed into federal law in 1954, it prevents tax-exempt groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates. That means no campaigning, no fund-raising, no church sermons on behalf of candidates — although voter registration drives, voter education, publishing “issue guides” for voters, and pastors preaching about political issues are fine.

President Trump has vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which many white evangelicals have been pushing to repeal, arguing it restricts free speech.

Now the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network is pushing back, arguing the law should stay in place.

Repealing it “would open the door to nonprofits being targeted as pools or vehicles for dark money, for political soliciting and bundling, and moving campaign contributions around,” says CEO Jim Klocke. “Nonprofits would suddenly be pulled in the middle of all those things most people dislike about politics.”

So MNN has sent a letter to the state’s entire congressional delegation urging it to fight Trump’s plan.

And nearly 80 Massachusetts nonprofits have signed a similar letter, spearheaded by the National Council of Nonprofits, urging federal legislators to do the same.
— SACHA PFEIFFER


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