Defining definitions

 

Here’s a new article by a law librarian about statutory definitions:

Price, Jeanne Frazier. “Wagging, not barking: statutory definitions,” 60 Cleveland State Law Review 999-1055 (2013).

And here’s its abstract:

 

 

Legislative text is distinguished by the frequency with which it specifies the meaning of the words it employs. More than 25,000 terms are defined in the United States Code alone. In few other contexts is there a perceived need to so carefully and repeatedly clarify meaning. This Article examines the roles played by definitions in a reader’s understanding and application of a legislative text; it demonstrates that the effects of defining are not as straightforward as we might assume. The discussion is framed by the distinction between legislation as a communication vehicle and as an instrument of governance. In some cases, definition serves predominantly a communicative purpose; it clarifies the speaker’s intent. But at other times the legislative definition empowers; it serves a performative function, investing groups of individuals or instances with rights or obligations. The Article suggests that a better understanding of the effect of definition on a reader’s interaction with a text, coupled with an appreciation of the different roles served by definition, will enable legislators to draft more useful definitions and enable interpreters to better apply those definitions.

 

How to Use Legislative History to Teach Grammar

Anyone teaching the importance of legislative history in legal research need only point to a single punctuation mark: the mighty comma.  As a disclaimer, I strive to put my years of Latin classes to good use, but do not profess to be punctuationally-perfect.  (Interestingly, the Romans did not use modern punctuation, but I digress…)   One thing I do know, however, is that other people’s grammatical shortcomings sure can wreak a lot of havoc… making them a great teaching tool.

This past week, I was researching a state statute that, among many other things, imposed conditions on persons who had committed a “felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  At first blush, one would read this to mean that the conditions apply to persons involved in domestic violence felonies and misdemeanors.  Get this:  That provision actually governs anyone who commits either a “felony” or a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  In other words, we should really be reading a comma into the statute between “felony” and “misdemeanor” where the legislators neglected to put one!

Uncovering the latent comma was not easy.  News articles referred to the imposition of the conditions on felons, but without citing the supporting statutory clause.  Secondary sources referred to conditions emanating from the “domestic violence clause” of the statute, failing to illuminate that the clause also covers all felonies.  Case law cited the statute as creating certain conditions, but decided matters on other grounds.

The best recourse was to trace the historical progression of the clause, which I was able to do through older versions of the statute and the legislators’ own analysis.  Earlier iterations made no reference to domestic violence whatsoever, as the clause originally pertained to persons who had committed any felony.  Years later, the legislature added “or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” but failed to demarcate this clause with a comma that would have resolved ambiguity.  If the legislators had simply written “any felony, or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,” I would have spent fifteen minutes on a project that instead took five hours!  (Note:  I do not require legislators to bold, italicize, or underscore the comma; any font or stylization will do!)

Do you have any grammar-related teachable moments you’d like to share?  We’d love to hear them and pass them along to our classes.  To that end, I particularly enjoyed Prof. Susan J. Hankin’s “Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness:  An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters,” which references recent literature on the subject and also offers some great case law examples to use in class.

Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide

Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide
INFOdocket
Information Industry News + New Web Sites and Tools From Gary Price and Shirl Kennedy
CRS — Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide

Posted on June 20, 2011 by fulltextreports
Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide (PDF)

    This report provides an overview of federal legislative history research, the legislative process, and where to find congressional documents. The report also summarizes some of the reasons researchers are interested in legislative history, briefly describes the actions a piece of legislation might undergo during the legislative process, and provides a list of easily accessible print and electronic resources. This report will be updated as needed.

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)
Hat tip to the always useful-to-follow Boley Law Library in Portland, Oregon (to follow on Twitter, it’s:   @lawlib )

California Legislative History – It’s all online, right?

Here’s a very useful article from the January/February 2011 issue of FORUM, the magazine of the Consumer Attorneys of California.  It is useful, in particular, for pointing out that offline research is often needed, even for new laws.

Budget-Minded Research: California Legislative History

By Carolina Rose

. . . unfortunately, some researchers make the mistake of thinking that if the legislative history is not available on the free website or from Westlaw or LexisNexis, that the records simply do not exist.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are many other records that are not included in these databases that can be obtained from other offline sources and that the courts routinely rely on.  For example, in one case . . . the court relied on two records to support its plain meaning of the statute: 1) An unpublished letter from Pacific Gas and Electric Company dated March 8, 1974, found in Assemblyman Charles Warren’s author’s bill file, and 2) a subsequent bill version apparently incorporating the amendment that had been pro[posed and explained in the letter.”

Citing 2 Cal. App. 4th 206, 222-23

. . .

and:

In short, free online California legislative history research from 1993 to current can be a boon to the budget-minded researcher, but it can also give a false sense of security. . . . the absence of valuable legislative history materials from the free online website or the costly, subscription-based online services does not mean that they do  not exist. . . .

The author of the article is co-founder and president of Legislative Research Inc. (LRI) (and a SLS alumna); in the article she summarizes the steps involved in compiling a legislative history and explains the added research a company such as hers can accomplish with feet on the ground — offline — in Sacramento.   You’ll want to know about such offline documents  so as, as she puts it, to not be “blind-sided by opposing counsel’s use of them.”