The Supreme Court, more noted for the sophistication and convolution of its decisions, did something wonderfully simple the other day. It unanimously held that a statute meant just what it said.

The law requires the payment of a fee to "a witness in attendance at any court of the United States." It names one exception: deportable aliens.So when Richard Demarest, an inmate of a Colorado state prison convicted of murder, petitioned to receive the $30-a-day fee for testifying in Federal District Court in Denver, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor - overturning a longstanding federal policy against paying prisoners.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist said a government policy could not stand in defiance of statutory "language as plain as we find here." The court's liberals and conservatives agreed.

What a novel reprieve from the usual feats of interpretation and ideology.