Archive for Language and the law

Cyprus, Cypress, whatever…

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This is not a comedy sketch

At least, we're five months away from April Fool's Day…

Lydia Wheeler, "Court rules request for 'lawyer dog' too 'ambiguous'", The Hill 10/30/2017:

The Louisiana Supreme Court won't hear an appeal from a man who claimed he told police during an interview to "just give me a lawyer dog,” with a justice saying the request was "ambiguous." […]

[D]etectives reportedly advised the defendant of his Miranda rights, and the defendant stated he understood and waived those rights.

The defendant, however, claimed he invoked his right to counsel in a second police interview when he said “if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog cause this is not what’s up.” […]

“In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a 'lawyer dog' does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview,” [Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton] said.

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Semantics at the Supreme Court

“What is the difference between ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘substantial need’?” asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see this story in the New York Times). “I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can’t think of an example.”

Several of the court’s more liberal justices disagreed, saying that “reasonably necessary” connoted matters that a reasonable lawyer with finite resources would try to pursue.

On the outcome there hangs the issue of whether death row inmates like Carlos Manuel Ayestas in Texas will get legal aid. A federal appeals court in New Orleans, which oversees cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, says there must a “substantial need” for the money, and denied funds to Ayestas. He challenged the denial.

So don't ever say there is no practical importance to the work semanticists do as they try to identify truth-conditional differences between terms of broadly similar meaning.

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Terror of singular 'they'

Joining a crowd of other recent fraudsters, Paul Roberts and Deborah Briton returned from their Spanish vacation and subsequently turned in a completely fake claim against the Thomas Cook package-vacation company, alleging that their time in Spain had been ruined by stomach complaints for which the hotel and the company should be held liable. They sought more than $25,000 in damages for the fictional malady. The judge sentenced them to jail. And in this report of the case my colleague Bob Ladd noticed that Sam Brown, the prosecuting attorney, showed himself to be so terrified of blundering into a singular they that he would not even risk using they with plural reference, preferring to utter a totally ungrammatical sentence:

*Sam Brown, prosecuting, said: "Both defendants knew that in issuing this claim he or she would be lying in order to support it."

Beware of struggling to obey prescriptive injunctions that don't come naturally to you; they can warp your ability to use your native language sensibly.

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Cultural invasion

Article in South China Morning Post (9/19/17) by Jasmine Siu:

"Activist fined HK$3,000 for binning Hong Kong public library books in ‘fight against cultural invasion’ from mainland China:  Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, 29, convicted of theft over dumping of books printed in simplified Chinese characters"

A radical Hong Kong activist was on Tuesday fined HK$3,000 for dumping library books in a bin in what he said was an attempt to protect children from the “cultural invasion” of simplified Chinese characters.

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"100% grated parmesan cheese"

Glenn Lammi, "Food Court Follies: Judge Grates Parmesan-Cheese Multidistrict Litigation", Forbes 8/31/2017:

A recent court case asked the Reasonable Person to put on her "reasonable consumer" hat and determine the meaning of the term "100% Grated Parmesan Cheese" as it appears on containers of shelf-stable, processed shaky cheese.

In February 2016, inspired by overblown media stories, 15 lawsuits were filed in 6 different courts against 7 defendants (Kraft Heinz Co., Albertsons Cos., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores, ICCO-Cheese Co., and Publix Super Markets) alleging common-law and statutory violations for those companies' false or misleading use of that statement.

The term is fraudulent, the suits alleged, because the container of grated or shredded cheese included an additive, cellulose, which is included to prevent caking.

On June 2, 2016, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized all the actions in one multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of Illinois before Judge Gary Feinerman.

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Uncle Martian knocks off Under Armour

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Disparaging trademarks

"Supreme Court rules government can't refuse disparaging trademarks", ESPN:

The Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of a law that bans offensive trademarks in a ruling that is expected to help the Redskins in their legal fight over the team name.

The justices ruled that the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes free speech rights.

The ruling is a victory for the Asian-American rock band called the Slants, but the case was closely watched for the impact it would have on the separate dispute involving the Washington football team.

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Investigations, hypothetical and otherwise

In an interview yesterday with Chris Wallace, did Donald Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow state that the president is being investigated by Robert Mueller ("Jay Sekulow on reports Bob Mueller has widened investigation", Fox News 6/18/2017)? It certainly sounds like he did:

But Chris Wallace is frustrated to find that a few seconds later, Sekulow nevertheless asserts that he didn't say any such thing.


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Defense counsel for the victim?

A truly Freudian slip in a story in the UK conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph, speaking volumes about what goes wrong with so many rape and sexual assault prosecutions:

Camille Cosby, wife of the entertainer, issued a statement, read out by an associate on the court steps in a dramatically-delivered speech.

She attacked the judge as biased, and said the defence were "totally unethical."

The defense? Andrea Constand and the other brave women who have accused Bill Cosby (they say he drugged them so he could enjoy sexual gratification without their consent) were not in the dock, and the lawyers arguing their case were not the defense team, but the prosecutors. The Telegraph journalist, Harriet Alexander, has apparently reversed the roles of the accused's defense and the district attorney.

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The hot potato of interpretive responsibility

Below is a guest post by Elisabeth Camp.


Mark posted part of a particularly linguistically juicy exchange from James Comey’s recent Senate testimony, in which Senator Risch “drilled down” on the “exact words” attributed by Comey to Trump, noting that Trump merely expressed his “hope” that Comey could “can see [his] way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Risch then went on to suggest, without saying, that speakers can only be held legally accountable for what they explicitly threaten or claim, and not for mere expressions of hope:

Risch: He said, ‘I hope’. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?

Comey: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying ‘his words’ is I took it as a direction.

In a follow-up post, Mark linked to a discussion of a 1995 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which though not a criminal statute, held that the mere statement of an employer’s “hopes” can indeed have a “chilling effect” and “interfere with [an employee’s] exercise of rights.” But there are further grounds for challenge as well, including workplace law on sexual harassment.

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Coercive hopes

Andrew Strom, "Workers Understand a Boss's 'Hopes'", On Labor 6/9/2017:

According to the sworn testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, President Trump pulled him into a private meeting in the oval office and said, about the FBI’s ongoing investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, “I hope you can let this go.”  One question raised by the testimony is whether it was reasonable for Comey to interpret President Trump’s statement as a directive.  While labor law does not have a direct answer, the National Labor Relations Board has held that when a company president expresses his “hope” to a worker, it can be coercive.

In a 1995 case, KNTV, Inc., the company president had a private meeting with a reporter where the president told the reporter, “I hope you won’t continue to be an agitator or antagonize the people in the newsroom.”  The NLRB found that the statement was coercive in large part because it was made by the company’s highest ranking official and it was made in a meeting that the reporter was required to attend alone.  Sound familiar?

In other words, the expert agency that regularly adjudicates disputes about whether particular statements by an employer rise to the level of coercion has held that when the president of an organization expresses his “hopes” in a private conversation with a worker, those comments will likely have a “chilling effect” on the employee.

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Coral reef, dead or alive

June Teufel Dreyer noticed that the People's Daily and other official outlets refer to Okinotori as a jiāo 礁, reef, which fits her understanding of the geology involved.  The Japanese, hoping for a larger Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), say it is an island. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) definition is that a rock incapable of sustaining life (“life” is not defined; could be human life, animals, plants, bacteria?) is not an island. The government of Japan position is that Okinotori isn’t a rock, since it is composed of coral.  Yet the character, which she assumes the Japanese use as well, clearly contains the rock element.   So, June asked, can coral be considered a rock?  In this case, there are substantial implications.

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