Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Burris v. Superior Court (Cal. Sup. Ct. - January 10, 2005)

Here's a decision of the California Supreme Court that I very much like, notwithstanding the fact that I have no particularly strong feelings at all about the result (which involves a difficult issue of statutory interpretation of Section 1387(a) of the Penal Code).

What I like about Justice Werdegar's analysis here is that she's not bound herself to the type of mechanistic statutory analysis that's increasingly -- and, in my mind, distressingly -- in vogue. She recognizes that the statute in question is truly ambiguous: that we're not entirely sure to what the term "it" in the statute is meant to refer (i.e., whether that word refers to the previously dismissed charge or to the new charge). Rather than deciding the case by applying the type of hypertechnical grammatical analysis that only an elementary school teacher from hell would enjoy, she quotes and decides the case in a manner consistent with Justice Breyer's dissent in J.E.M. AG Supply, in which he noted that the rules of grammar and canons of construction are only tools -- that "[t]hose who write statutes seek to solve human problems [and] [f]idelity to their aims requires us to approach an interpretive problem not as if it were a purely logical game, like a Rubik's Cube, but as an effort to devine the human intent that underlies the statute."

Now, I haven't read the briefs or anything. Maybe Justice Werdeger got it wrong -- although the result she reaches seems entirely plausible to me. Regardless, I very much appreciated the manner in which she goes about resolving the case, which demonstrated (to me) both an appreciation for our common law tradition as well as a commonsense approach to statutory interpretation. Hurrah.