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.


The superhero approach to legal research

We haven’t asked our students to buy a textbook in advanced legal research for a long time.  The existing books are just too darn expensive.  But a new book crossed my desk today that looks particularly useful for teaching legal research; it is:  The Law of Superheroes (catalog record copied below).

This book starts with three pages explaining “Legal Sources and Citations” that explain legal citation about as well as anything I’ve seen.  It also points the reader, presumably the lay reader, to sources of free law:  Google Scholar for legal opinions; Cornell’s LII for the United States Code.  Peter Martin is cited on page xiii, so this tells me the authors know their research!

Throughout the book are wonderful footnotes explaining, in the clearest language possible, different aspects of legal research.  For example, footnote #4 on p. 113:

. . . Restatements of law are scholarly works that attempt to set forth the majority position on particular areas of law or recommended changes to the majority position.  They mostly cover subjects that are still primarily common law rather than those based on legislation. The Restatements are not law themselves, but courts often find them persuasive, and many sections of various Restatements have been adopted as law by state courts.

The section on immigration (is Superman a citizen?) offers a great explanation of private laws:

Private Acts of Congress

There’s another way that someone can become a citizen without going through the immigration process: a “private act” of Congress, i.e., a law targeting a specific person and declaring him or her to be a citizen.[fn 9]  Although unusual today, private acts have a long history in the United States.[fn10]  . . . As a matter of fact, in at least one story, Superman is granted citizenship by every country in the world, presumably by their respective versions of a private act of Congress. . . .

9. . . . These bills are not very common, nor are they usually passed, but it happens.

10.  In fact, for decades after the founding of the country, private acts by state legislatures were the only way for a legitimate 9i.e., non-annullable) marriage to be dissolved.  Similarly, prior to the passage of general incorporation statutes, which create the procedures by which corporations may be chartered with state-level secretaries of state, creating a corporate entity required an act of the state legislature.

The sections on international and interplanetary law are really fun, and explain the very basics of “law” itself:

The important thing to remember about international law . . . is that international law is a matter of custom and practice as much as it is anything else.  This is true of domestic law as well, and is really the reason the common law exists: a “law” is, essentially, a custom or tradition that is enforced by a government.  In the case of common law that tradition is built up by the decisions of the courts. . . .

I may have more to add later, as I’m taking this book home with me for the Thanksgiving break.

Here’s its catalog record:

The law of superheroes / James E. Daily and Ryan M. Davidson.

At the Library:
Crown (Law) > Basement > PN56 .L33 D35 2012



Un-Legislative History

Wikipedia is often a boon for quick legal research about well-publicized matters.  It’s a great way to find where a statute is codified, or the background of a famous case.  When it comes to legislative history, though, sometimes Wikipedia’s a bust.  For anyone looking for a good example of why one must follow up with proper research into legislative history, please see Wikipedia’s entry on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which passed in July 2010.  As of Nov. 16, 2010, Wikipedia has the following to say about the changes implemented by Title XI of Dodd-Frank:

“The Federal Reserve Act is amended to change the New York Federal Reserve President to a Presidential appointment, with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

In support of this assertion, Wikipedia cites and links to the Enrolled Final Version of HR 4173, available on the LOC’s Thomas page.  Unfortunately, Wikipedia gets it wrong:  The version of the bill that passed Congress removed that language (which had been proposed by the Senate but rejected by the House).  The Senate’s proposal in this regard was snipped on June 17, 2010, weeks before the final bill passed.  Legislative history research–including review of committee meeting transcripts–coupled with news and secondary source coverage bore out the truth.

We always offer cautions when it comes to Wikipedia, and now there’s a handy example to which we can refer.

UPDATE:  Thanks to our helpful reader, Wikipedia has been policed. . .while its lesson remains!



by Will Tress

Golden Gate University Law Review, Vol. 40, Issue #2, Winter 2010, p. 129

Conclusion (p. 164)

Three features that detract from the U.S. Code as the comprehensive and authoritative source for federal statutes are rooted in the Code’s historical development.  The prima facie titles of the Code lack sufficient notice that the authoritative language of the statutes codified there resides in the Statutes at Large.  Better signposting for those titles is suggested.  Amendments to the positive law titles that are not drafted in the proper “direct amendment” format are relegated to footnotes, where they can be overlooked by the uninformed reader.  Annual corrective bills would ameliorate this problem.  General laws that are considered temporary, such as those included in appropriations acts, are left out of the Code entirely.  Pointers to these uncodified laws might be incorporated into an unofficial electronic version of the U.S. Code as part of the search results by sidebar references.  Such an electronic Code could easily provide the signposts to the session laws for prima facie titles and even insert draft versions of amendments into positive law titles pending official correction legislation.  The Congressional Offices of Code Revision and Legislative Counsel should collaborate with the Government Printing Office to use new information technology to fix old problems with the U.S. Code.

This article is going to be required reading for our class next year.  Its discussion of “the prima facie code” and the positive law titles, a topic that always throws the class for a bit of a loop, is the best I’ve seen on the subject, with excellent examples (and potential homework questions) in the footnotes.

Properties of the United States Code Citation Network

“Properties of the United States Code Citation Network”

MICHAEL JAMES BOMMARITO, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – Department of Political Science, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – Department of Mathematics, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – Center for Study of Complex Systems

DANIEL MARTIN KATZ, University of Michigan Law School , University of Michigan at Ann Arbor – Center for Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan – Department of Political Science

The United States Code is a body of documents that collectively comprises the statutory law of the United States. In this short paper, we investigate the properties of the network of citations contained within the Code – most notably its degree distribution. Acknowledging the text contained within each of the Code’s section nodes, we adjust our interpretation of the nodes to control for section length. Though we find a number of interesting properties in these degree distributions, we demonstrate that a power law distribution is not an appropriate model for this system.


Source:  LSN Experimental & Empirical Studies Vol. 10 No. 103,  12/02/2009