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.

 

Becoming the “compleat lawyer” the Aldisert way

From time to time I will get a call or e-mail from a proud parent whose son or daughter has been admitted to Stanford Law School.  The parent wants my advice on a book for their accomplished child to read upon the beginning of their new-found career.  A wonderful book has just come along which fits the bill perfectly:  Judge Ruggero Aldisert’s A Judge’s Advice: 50 Years on the Bench.

This slender volume packs a lot of punch.  In less than 250 pages the judge offers answers to questions that have occupied his thoughts for decades:  : “What is the bedrock of our common law system? What are trial and appellate judges really looking for? What is the logical configuration that is absolutely necessary in any legal argument? What practical challenges do judges face when deciding a case? What is the difference between the philosophy of law and a philosophy of law? What is the difference between a judge making a decision and a judge justifying it, and why does that difference matter to me?  Precedent in the law: When do you kiss it and when do you kill it?”

The judge organizes his thoughts among the following five themes:

  • Our Common Law Tradition: Still Alive and Kicking
  • Logic and Law
  • Avoiding Assembly Line Justice?
  • The “Write Stuff”
  • How Judges Decide Cases

And within these themes are found the following chapters:

The house of the law — The role of the courts in contemporary society — Precedent : what it is and what it isn’t, when do we kiss it and when do we kill it? — Elements of legal thinking — Logic for law students : how to think like a lawyer — Formal and informal fallacies — State courts and federalism — Life in the raw in appellate courts — “The seniors” suggest a solution — Brief writing — Opinion writers and law review writers: a community and continuity of approach — Reading and evaluating an appellate opinion — Philosophy, jurisprudence and jurisprudential temperament of federal judges — Making the decision — Justifying the decision.

While I know that all law students would benefit greatly from reading this book, when I first saw it our international students immediately came to mind as no other single volume that I am aware of so neatly and clearly explains the American legal system.  This book explains stare decisis better than anything else available.

Judge Aldisert writes about his particular passion — the law — with an enthusiasm that is almost exhausting.  Through this book the law student can get a glimpse of just how enormously satisfying the next 60 or 70 years of his or her life can be.

As the judge states in his Introduction:  “. . . These pages flesh out the instruments and implements of lawyers with a far-ranging ‘view from above’ with one objective in mind: to enrich the skills of these men and women so that each may bear — to borrow from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler — the noble title of ‘compleat lawyer.’

This book really should be required reading for all law students, lawyers and others too.  Judge Aldisert is one of my heroes, along with others who inspire me such as Roger Ebert, Vin Scully, Tony Bennett and Keiko Fukuda (Google her)  — people who, while they may have stopped buying green bananas, they have not stopped working and never will.  These are people who make no distinction between work and play and who will be carried off the job feet-first.  They know the secret.   People who I want to be like when I grow up.

Full disclosure:  I was first charmed by Judge Aldisert when I met him during my daughter’s clerkship for him.

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.

Legal Research Guide to Canadian Statutes

Legal Research Guide to Statutes

Eric B. Appleby

Maritime Law Book, 2007

http://www.mlb.nb.ca/site/ffiles/statute.pdf

From the introduction:

This legal research guide is meant to provide instruction on how to find cases that are relevant to an issue in the law of statutes and statutory interpretation. This guide does not provide instruction on how to find statutes or regulations.

Table of Contents

1. The language of statutes – common terms defined

2. Operation and effect of statutes

3. Operation and effect, on earlier statutes

4. Interpretation of Statutes

5. Remedial Statutes

6. Penal Statutes

Hat tip: Ted Tjaden.  One of many nuggets in his excellent book “Legal Research and Writing,” 3rd Edition.

“Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness: An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters”

“Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness: An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters”

Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2010
University of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-52

SUSAN J. HANKIN, University of Maryland – School of Law

This article uses an unpublished case interpreting New York’s animal cruelty law as an object lesson to teach why grammar matters. In People v. Walsh, 2008 WL 724724 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. Jan. 3, 2008), the court’s interpretation of the statute turned, in part, on the serial comma rule (sometimes called the “Oxford comma” rule). The court followed a mandatory approach to interpret the statute’s meaning, even though most contemporary grammar and style books make such use of a comma optional. One of the many benefits of using a case example to teach why grammar matters is that it focuses students on the expectations of an important legal reader: the judge who may be using her own understanding of grammar rules to interpret language in a statute. The article explores what can happen when the legislators drafting statutes and the courts interpreting them may be operating on different sets of rules —  in this case, rules of grammar. It then uses this exploration to recommend ways of using the case and statute as a teaching tool to impress upon students, among other lessons, the importance of avoiding ambiguity in legal writing.

 

Source:  LSN Law & Rhetoric Vol. 3 No. 1,  01/04/2010