Indiana Judges Association: Dealing with different takes on language

David J. Dreyer
December 7, 2011
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

IJA-Dreyer-DavidNews item: Pope brings back “consubstantial” to Catholic Mass.

News item: Indiana removes “preponderance” from jury instructions.

What happens when honored traditions collide with contemporary preferences?

A trial judge’s job is often befuddling. We have to differentiate between peoples’ language, their values, even their competing views about what language means. So when the Pope and the Indiana Supreme Court have different views about what direction language should take, what is a trial judge to do?

Regardless of one’s faith preference – or not – this is a lively and vital conundrum. On one hand, we lawyers have plenty of cases and experiences to help us address each case and its issues. On the other hand, how do we deal with the enduring dilemma best expressed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (I am now presumably the only Indiana judge ever to quote Wittgenstein.) Consider the following courtroom exchange:

Judge: “Raise your right hand.”

Witness reaches for the stars

Judge: “No, just hold it by your head.”

Witness puts hand on top of head

Judge: “No, hold it by your face.”

Witness puts hand on cheek

Judge: “Let me see the palm.”

Witness holds hand out palm up.

Judge: “Let’s forget the hand thing. Do you solemnly swear …”

Believe it or not, this exchange really took place in an Indianapolis courtroom with a native English-speaking person. Overall, it illustrates a simple gap between the interpretations of commonly used words. In law, we oftentimes call this “statutory construction.” A recent Indiana case shows how strained this can become. On one hand, the court subtitled a section by using the word “propinquity.” (This is now presumably the only Indiana court ever to use the word “propinquity” in the 21st century.) On the other hand, the irony is that the case is about contrasting interpretations of common language in a sentence. The court cleared it all up by writing:

“In any event, while the gerund ‘operating’ is nominally a noun, it is not functioning as such in section 3, but, rather, as the object of the prepositional phrase ‘of operating while intoxicated,’ which is functioning as an adjectival phrase to modify ‘conviction.’ As such, ‘conviction’ is the noun closest to the prepositional phrase beginning with ‘that occurred within … five … years’ and, in our view, is clearly being modified by that phrase as well. In summary, while we acknowledge that word order is important, there is nothing in the word order of section 3 to suggest that the phrase ‘occurred within … five … years’ is intended to modify anything other than ‘conviction.’”

Hmm … I guess there is no “on the other hand” here.

What we mean is not necessarily shown by what we say. Given the inherent enigmas present in any language, one wonders how we prevent a virtual Babel everyday in our courtrooms. Consider this famous courtroom example:

Lawyer: “And lastly, sir, all your responses must be oral. Ok? What school do you go to?”

Witness: “Oral.”

Lawyer: “How old are you?”

Witness: “Oral.”

We lawyers are eloquent, educated, engaging and enigmatic. We sometimes seem most betrayed by our ability. The use of language is the exercise of critique. Similarly, the decision to spare language, or say less, is equally essential to analysis. But lawyers all too often require themselves to propagate phrases and purportedly build language fortresses to protect clients’ interests. Judges, then, are all too often left with the resulting conflagration when the fortress is attacked. Some judges are literally confined to confusion. Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub of the New Jersey Supreme Court once confessed: “I don’t know what it means. I am stumped.” (Of course, he was talking about an insurance policy.) Efforts are often proposed to make the law’s language less worrisome and more humane. But, like the Catholic Church, so much of it comes from Latin, for God’s sake. Here is where we return to our opening question about tradition and current preference. Actually I appreciate Latin – like I appreciate the Mona Lisa. It’s not a dead language, really, but more like preserved in a cryogenic state if we need it. My favorite Latin legal phrase is nudum pactum (naked promise). If I ever start a band, I might name it ultra vires (beyond powers). But the everyday challenges faced by judges are squarely derived from the balance of what is meant by the language of the law and what is meant by the language of the world. My young friends often tell me they are “down with that” when they mean they like something. So when I hear it in my courtroom, I have to make the adjustment, dude. Just like when I hear “propinquity.”•

Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Lori, you must really love wedding cake stories like this one ... happy enuf ending for you?

  2. This new language about a warning has not been discussed at previous meetings. It's not available online. Since it must be made public knowledge before the vote, does anyone know exactly what it says? Further, this proposal was held up for 5 weeks because members Carol and Lucy insisted that all terms used be defined. So now, definitions are unnecessary and have not been inserted? Beyond these requirements, what is the logic behind giving one free pass to discriminators? Is that how laws work - break it once and that's ok? Just don't do it again? Three members of Carmel's council have done just about everything they can think of to prohibit an anti-discrimination ordinance in Carmel, much to Brainard's consternation, I'm told. These three 'want to be so careful' that they have failed to do what at least 13 other communities, including Martinsville, have already done. It's not being careful. It's standing in the way of what 60% of Carmel residents want. It's hurting CArmel in thT businesses have refused to locate because the council has not gotten with the program. And now they want to give discriminatory one free shot to do so. Unacceptable. Once three members leave the council because they lost their races, the Carmel council will have unanimous approval of the ordinance as originally drafted, not with a one free shot to discriminate freebie. That happens in January 2016. Why give a freebie when all we have to do is wait 3 months and get an ordinance with teeth from Day 1? If nothing else, can you please get s copy from Carmel and post it so we can see what else has changed in the proposal?

  3. Here is an interesting 2012 law review article for any who wish to dive deeper into this subject matter: Excerpt: "Judicial interpretation of the ADA has extended public entity liability to licensing agencies in the licensure and certification of attorneys.49 State bar examiners have the authority to conduct fitness investigations for the purpose of determining whether an applicant is a direct threat to the public.50 A “direct threat” is defined as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services as provided by § 35.139.”51 However, bar examiners may not utilize generalizations or stereotypes about the applicant’s disability in concluding that an applicant is a direct threat.52"

  4. We have been on the waiting list since 2009, i was notified almost 4 months ago that we were going to start receiving payments and we still have received nothing. Every time I call I'm told I just have to wait it's in the lawyers hands. Is everyone else still waiting?

  5. I hope you dont mind but to answer my question. What amendment does this case pretain to?