• October 24, 2012

Many (most? all?) legal principles crumble into dust or, at a minimum, give the appearance of being porous, brittle, and endlessly manipulable when subjected to close scrutiny.  Take the idea of interpreting a statute or an agreement by giving the text its “plain meaning.”

The plain meaning rule dictates that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute, unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise.  Superficially, this seems a simple and sensible rule to have and to apply (and, on occasion, it really is).

But here’s the problem: almost any time a court is called on to interpret a statute, it is because two or more interpretations of the statute are being placed before the court.  Under such circumstances, “plain meaning” seems inherently implausible if not impossible.

It is almost as if the “plain meaning rule” is: if a text’s meaning is indisputable, it will be understood to have its indisputable meaning.  But, of course, the rule only comes into play when there is a dispute as to a text’s meaning.

This post might have a slippery abstract, theoretical, philosophical coating that eludes the firm grasp of a reader or two so here is the concrete setting that gives rise to it:

Minnesota Litigator has covered a convoluted Russian saga, which was recently settled with the assistance of the law firm of Skolnick & Shiff, P.A., which came in as the deus ex machina at the end of the novel, to end the carnage.

But when it came time for the law firm to be paid, the plaintiffs turned on the firm and fought against its being paid.  (No good deed goes unpunished.)

In adjudicating the law firm’s attorneys’ lien claim, U.S.  District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz noted that two Minnesota Court of Appeals decisions (here and here) both interpreted the “plain meaning” of the same Minnesota statute and they came out on opposite sides of the statute’s “plain meaning.”

So three Minnesota Court of Appeals judges (which appellate panel?) are incapable of construing the “plain meaning” of a statute?  That is absurd.  Rather, the entire notion of a statute or an agreement having a “plain meaning” is more rhetorical than real, more often than not.

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