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Indiana Judges Association: Dealing with different takes on language

David J. Dreyer
December 7, 2011
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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.

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  1. Someone off their meds? C'mon John, it is called the politics of Empire. Get with the program, will ya? How can we build one world under secularist ideals without breaking a few eggs? Of course, once it is fully built, is the American public who will feel the deadly grip of the velvet glove. One cannot lay down with dogs without getting fleas. The cup of wrath is nearly full, John Smith, nearly full. Oops, there I go, almost sounding as alarmist as Smith. Guess he and I both need to listen to this again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnQ65J02XA

  2. Charles Rice was one of the greatest of the so-called great generation in America. I was privileged to count him among my mentors. He stood firm for Christ and Christ's Church in the Spirit of Thomas More, always quick to be a good servant of the King, but always God's first. I had Rice come speak to 700 in Fort Wayne as Obama took office. Rice was concerned that this rise of aggressive secularism and militant Islam were dual threats to Christendom,er, please forgive, I meant to say "Western Civilization". RIP Charlie. You are safe at home.

  3. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  4. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  5. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

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