Are Coequal and Equal Equal? Are They Coequal?

Orin Kerr quotes Alberto Gonzales as saying:

We have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a coequal branch of government.

Which raises, of course, the eternal question: Equal or coequal?

Brian Garner has a nice discussion of “coequal” (or “co-equal”) as a substitute for “equal.” He concludes that they are almost always equivalent and that the only additional nuance that “co-equal” adds is that it can imply the other things with which the described thing is equal. If he is right, then here may be one of the cases in which it’s useful — the Congress is equal to the other two branches of government, but as the sentence doesn’t mention them, “equal” would be odd.

Put another way, I think the following are most nearly correct, according to Garner’s distinction:

The Constitution establishes three equal [not coequal] branches of government.

Congress is a coequal [not equal] branch of government.

Garner also points to the following “mini-tirade” (Garner’s phrase) from Robert C. Cumbow, The Subverting of the Goeduck, 14 U. Puget Sound L. Rev. 755, 779 (1991).

Does the legalistic neologism “coequal” add anything to the meaning of the time-honored word “equal?” It seems only to suggest a kind of superequality: Not only does A equal B and B equal A, but A and B equal each other! Imagine! They’re both equal together! the word seems to proclaim. But equality being absolute, it is of no consequence whether A and B are equal together or separately. They are equal, and that’s that.

(Garner’s version of the quotation italicizes the exclamation points after italicized words. The original does not. The proper italicization of punctuation of quoted text is not a matter on which I have been able to find an authoritative statement, although the alteration strikes me as incorrect.)

Cumbow’s article is not about the Goeduck; it’s about the “Goeduck.” That is, he hazards a guess at how G-O-E-D-U-C-K (pronounced roughly “gooey-duck”) became G-E-O-D-U-C-K (pronounced roughly “gooey-duck”). His theory is that some reviser of the Washington State Code made the flip, and thereafter it radiated outwards due to the “control that law exercises over language.” Id. at 756. In an interesting coda to Cumbow’s claims, the University of Puget Sound Law Review is now the Seattle University Law Review, in keeping with the name change of the school itself. (The law school changed universities in 1994 and physically moved from Tacoma to Seattle in 1999.)