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6/15/2016 LawandtheOrderofCulture"d0e1366"

PreferredCitation:Post,Robert,editor.LawandtheOrderofCulture.Berkeley:UniversityofCalifornia
Press,c19911991.http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft9q2nb693/


FacingFactsinLegalInterpretation

TheInterpretationofLaw:
Riggsv.PalmerRevisited

ElmerPalmerpoisonedhisgrandfather.Themotivewasclear.IfElmerdidn'tactquickly,hestoodto
losealargeinheritance.
FrancisPalmerhadwrittenawillinwhichheleftasmallpartofhisestatetohistwodaughters,
Mrs.RiggsandMrs.Preston,andtheresttohisgrandson,Elmer.IfElmerdiedfirstordiedwithout
childrenwhocouldinheritthisestate,theentireestatewouldreverttothedaughters.
ButtwoyearsaftertheelderPalmermadehiswill,hemarriedoneMrs.Bresee.Thecouple
draftedanantenuptialcontract,agreeingthatifMrs.BreseesurvivedFrancisPalmer,shewouldbe
supportedonPalmer'sfarm.Elmerthoughtthathisgrandfatherwouldsoonchangehiswilltobenefit
thenewwifeandexcludehimcompletely.Seeingthathisownpositionwasthreatened,Elmerkilled
hisgrandfatherinordertoinheritwhiletheinheritingwasgood.
TheNewYorkCourtofAppeals,hearingthecasein1889,wasasked:GiventhatElmerkilledhis
grandfather,shouldhebeallowedtoinheritunderhisgrandfather'swill?FrancisPalmer'swillwas
validatthetimeofFrancis'sdeath,Elmerwasstilllistedaschiefbeneficiary.Nothinginthestatute
explicitlypreventedmurderersfromgoingontoinheritfromthosetheymurdered.Butitdidn'tseem
righttothemajorityofjudgesontheNewYorkCourtofAppealsthatamurderershouldbeallowedto
gainfromhisdastardlydeed.[15]
Thedecisioninthecasewasnoteworthyforitsexplicitattentiontointerpretivestyle.Howthe
decisionoughttobearrivedatwasgivenasmuch,ifnotmore,considerationthanthereasoningor
theoutcomeitself.JudgeEarl,writingforthemajority,admittedthat

itisquitetruethatstatutesregulatingthemaking,proofandeffectofwills,andthedevolutionofproperty,ifliterally
construed,andiftheirforceandeffectcaninnowayandundernocircumstancesbecontrolledormodified,givetheproperty
tothemurderer.[16]

ButJudgeEarlwentontosaythatnotthewordsbuttheintentionsofthelawmakersindrafting
thestatuteshouldbecontrollinghereunderatheoryof"rationalinterpretation"or"equitable
construction":

Itcouldneverhavebeentheir[thelawmakers']intentionthatadoneewhomurderedthetestatortomakethewilloperative
shouldhaveanybenefitunderit.Ifsuchacasehadbeenpresenttotheirminds,andithadbeensupposednecessaryto
makesomeprovisionoflawtomeetit,itcannotbedoubtedthattheywouldhaveprovidedforit.Itisafamiliarcanonof
constructionthatathingwhichiswithintheintentionofthemakersofastatuteisasmuchwithinthestatuteasifitwere
withintheletterandathingwhichiswithintheletterofthestatuteisnotwithinthestatute,unlessitbewithintheintention
ofthemakers.[17]

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Onthisview,judgescanignorethewordsandgostraighttotheintentionsofthelawmakers,
assumingthatlawmakerscouldnothaveintendedabsurdthings.[18] Withthisgeneralmethodin
mind,JudgeEarlwrote,"Weneednot...bemuchtroubledbythegenerallanguagecontainedinthe
laws."Instead,judgesshouldrelyon"fundamentalmaximsofthecommonlaw,"suchas"Noone
shallbepermitted...totakeadvantageofhisownwrong."[19] Suchmaxims"aredictatedbypublic
policy,havetheirfoundationinuniversallawadministeredinallcivilizedcountriesandhavenowhere
beensupercededbystatute."[20] Elmerwasnotallowedtoinherit.
ThedissentbyJudgeGrayusedadifferentinterpretiveapproachandreachedtheopposite
conclusion,thoughheclearlyfelthimselfpulledongroundsofconsciencetowardthemajority
position.Butlawwaslaw:

IfIbelievedthatthedecision...couldbeaffectedbyconsiderationsofanequitablenature,Ishouldnothesitatetoassent

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6/15/2016 LawandtheOrderofCulture"d0e1366"
toviewswhichcommendthemselvestotheconscience.Butthematterdoesnotliewithinthedomainofconscience.Weare
boundbyrigidrulesoflaw.[21]

Thestatuteinquestionstatedthat"nowillinwriting,exceptinthecaseshereinaftermentioned,
noranypartthereof,shallberevokedoralteredotherwise."[22] Andnoexplicitprovisionthereinafter
mentionedcoveredthefactsraisedinRiggs.So,therewasnothingforit,Grayreasoned,butto
concludethatFrancisPalmer'swillshouldbecarriedoutaswritten,eveniftheeffectweretogivehis
murderermostofhisestate.Todootherwisewouldbetoactillegitimatelywherethelawsweresilent
andtoimposeapenaltyaboveandbeyondthepunishmentalreadymetedoutinthecriminaltrial.
WhetherElmerinheritsornotseemstorestentirelyonthetheoryofinterpretationthatajudge
adopts.BothEarlandGrayclaimtobefollowingthelaw,thougheachusesdifferentstrategiesin
diviningwhatitsays.Asaresult,whatGraygiveth,Earltakethaway.Isonewrong?Oristhelaw
sufficientlyflexibletoallowforopposingoutcomes?Ifthelawisthatflexible,thenwhat,ifanything,
ismeanttobeexcluded?Andiftheoutcomerestssocompletelyonthetheoryofinterpretationthe
judgeselects,thenisn'tthetheoryofinterpretationdoingatleastasmuchworkasthelawin
determiningtheoutcome?[23]
Thesequestionsplaceahighpremiumonbeingabletojustifytheinterpretivestrategyofthe
judge.Andonthisquestion,commentatorshavebeenasvariedastheyhavebeennumerous.Some,
likeRoscoePound,sidewithJudgeGrayandarguethatfillingindefectivestatuteswithjudicial
creativitymaysolvetheimmediateproblem,andmayevenproducejustice,butthatthis"judicial
speculation"goesbeyondwhatajudgeshoulddo.Ifthejudgemakeslawratherthanmerely
interpretsit,thenthejudge"putsameaningintothetextasajugglerputscoins,orwhatnot,intoa
dummy'shair,tobepulledforthpresentlywithan

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airofdiscovery.Itisessentiallyalegislative,notajudicial,process."[24] Poundblaststhemajority
opinioninRiggsasthemostconspicuousexampleof"spuriousinterpretation"outsidetheareaof
constitutionallaw.TheappropriatestrategyofinterpretationinahardcaselikeRiggs,Poundasserts,
isforthecourttoreadthestatuteasitstandsandtowaitforthelegislaturetochangethestatuteto
dealbetterwiththeawkwardresults.
Ofcourse,readingastatuteasitstandsitselfinvokescomplicatedinterpretiveideas.Stanley
FisharguesthattheRiggscasedoesnotreallypitaliteralinterpretationagainstanonliteralone,but
ratherframesthesameproblemagainsttwodifferentassumedpurposes:

Noreadingistheliteralreadinginthesensethatitisavailableapartfromanypurposewhatsoever.Ifitisassumedthatthe
purposeofprobateistoensuretheorderlydevolutionofpropertyatallcosts,thenthestatuteinthiscasewillhavetheplain
meaningurgedbythedefendantbutifitisassumedthatnolaweveroperatesinfavorofsomeonewhowouldprofitbyhis
crime,thenthe"same"statutewillhaveameaningthatisdifferent,butnolessplain.Ineithercase,thestatutewillhave
beenliterallyconstrued,andwhatthecourtwillhavedoneispreferoneliteralconstructiontoanotherbyinvokingone
purpose(assumedbackground)ratherthananother.[25]

FishunderminesPound'ssolutionbyshowinghowanyreadingisgoingtopresupposeexactlywhat
Poundsaysajudgeshouldnotuse:abackgroundtheoryaboutthelargerpurposeofthestatutethat
cannotbedirectlydrawnfromthestatute'swords.
RonaldDworkin(whohaslongusedRiggsasastalkinghorsefortheideathatjudgesdoand
shoulddrawonprinciplesfordecidinghardcases)[26] arguesthatthejudgeshouldreadastatutein
thebestpossiblelightagainstthebackdropofasetofcoherentprinciplesinthelaw.Dworkinmakes
thecaseinhisearlyworkthatprinciplesareasmuchapartofthelawasrulesare,andsoprovide
appropriatematerialsforjudgestodrawonindecidinghardcases.Riggsis,forDworkin,aperfect
exampleofthisstrategyputtogoodeffect.Inhislaterwork,Dworkinprovidesamuchmore
complicatedaccountofwhythisshouldbethecase.Thegoalofinterpretationistoweaveaseamless
webofprinciple.Appealingtothecoherenceoflaw,seeingeachcaseasaninstanceofabroader
practiceofprincipledjudgment,thejudgewillbedirectedtobetteranswers,onDworkin'sview.
AlthoughDworkindoesnotexplicitlyworkthroughwhatagoodanswerwouldlooklikeinRiggs,one
deeplysuspectsthathestillfavorsJudgeEarl'sview.Butanyjudge,onDworkin'sanalysis,musttake
intoaccountagreatcomplexityofthingstocomeupwithameaningfullycoherentwayofmakingthe
bestoftheprinciplesinthevicinityofthiscase.
PrincipleisnotsuchaneasymatterevenintheRiggscase,whichseemsonthesurfacetopit
nastymechanicaljudgingagainstmorallyinspired,principledinterpretation.WhenBenjaminCardozo
turnedhishandtowritingaboutthiscase,henoticedthattherewereimportantprinciplesonboth
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Therewastheprincipleofthebindingforceofawilldisposingoftheestateofatestatorinconformitywithlaw.That
principle,pushedtothelimitsofitslogic,seemedtoupholdthetitleofthemurderer.Therewastheprinciplethatcivilcourts
maynotaddtothepainsandpenaltiesofcrimes.That,pushedtothelimitsofitslogic,seemedagaintoupholdhistitle.But
overagainstthesewasanotherprinciple,ofgreatergenerality,itsrootsdeeplyfastenedinuniversalsentimentsofjustice,
theprinciplethatnomanshouldprofitfromhisowniniquityortakeadvantageofhisownwrong.Thelogicofthisprinciple
prevailedoverthelogicoftheothers.[27]

Andwhydidthislatterprincipleprevail?CardozoansweredthatElmerlosthislegacy"because
thesocialinterestservedbyrefusingtopermitthecriminaltoprofitbyhiscrimeisgreaterthanthat
servedbythepreservationandenforcementoflegalrightsofownership."[28] Justhowandwhythe
standardofgreatersocialinterestenterstotrumpalltheothersisnotclearonCardozo'saccount
(andthisiswhereDworkin'sthoughtfulattentiontojustifyingtheprincipledbasisofthelaw
representsanimprovementoverCardozo'sanalysis),buttheproblemisclear.Principlesof
interpretationneedacomplexjustificationoftheirown.Andthejustificationforaparticular
interpretivestrategyentersjudgingasthoughitwerepartofthelawitself,addingmoreprinciplesfor
thecourtstouse.
Thesedifferenttheoriesofinterpretationandofjustificationcompeteforascendancysothat
"interpretationsstrugglesidebysidewithlitigantsbeforethebar."[29] Debatesabouttheoriesof
interpretationrageovercaseslikeRiggspreciselybecausethesecasesmakesoclearhowverymuch
isatstakeinthechoiceofmethodforreadingastatute.
AlloftheseauthorswritingonRiggshaveassumedthatdecidingonthestrategyoflegal
interpretationdecidesthecase.Oncethegeneralapproachhasbeenjustified,theresultofthecase
followswithoutdifficulty.WithPound'stheory,Elmerinherits.WithDworkin'sandCardozo'stheory,
Elmerlosestheestate.Fishleavesthechoiceopen,butarguesthatthechoiceofbackgroundcontext
determinestheresult.Allagreethatoncethejudgehasdecidedhowtointerpretthelaw,theoutcome
ofthecaseisclear.WhatmakesRiggsahardcaseisthatdifferentoutcomesarereachedwith
differenttheoriesofinterpretation.Anddebateisjoinedoverhowthelegaltextoughttoberead.But
animportantpremiseisburiedinthisdebate.
Argumentsovertheinterpretationofthelawassumethatthefactshavecomeintoanappeals
courtasgiven.Inonesense,thisiscertainlycorrect.TheNewYorkCourtofAppealsisnotgoingto
denythatElmerpoisonedhisgrandfatherorthathestoodtoinheritasaresult.Butinanothersense,
acaseonappealalwayspresentstheopportunityforredescriptionorrecharacterizationofthefacts
thathavebeenfoundattrial.Andthecharacterizationoffactscanmakeallthedifferenceinthe
legalresult,evenwhenthequestionofinterpretivestrategyhasbeenanswered.
WhatmighthavehappenediftheRiggscourttookadifferentviewofthe

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facts?It'snoteasytoseehowfactscanberecharacterized,oncetheopinionshavebeenwritten.
Though,asKarlLlewellynwrote,"Thefactsarehardyweeds.Theywillnotdown,"[30] opinionwriting
tendstoobscurealternativeversions,tomaketheversionofthefactsaspresentedseemtomeetthe
WalterCronkitetest:"Andthat'sthewayitis."Butbehindeverydescriptionoffacts,therearemany
otherversions,equallytruebutdifferentlyorganized.Changesinemphasis,alternativepointsof
view,differentsymboliccontexts,varyingbackgroundassumptionsallhavetheireffectsonwhich
versionofaparticularstoryseemsthemostcompelling.Andthereis,inRiggs,aparticular
alternativeversionthatwasavailabletothecourtbutnotchosen,aversionthatincorporatedalegal
fiction.Toseethis,let'sexaminethelegalcontextinwhichRiggsarose.

FacingFactsinLegalInterpretation

PreferredCitation:Post,Robert,editor.LawandtheOrderofCulture.Berkeley:UniversityofCalifornia
Press,c19911991.http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft9q2nb693/

http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft9q2nb693chunk.id=d0e1366doc.view=print 3/3