What is POFP?

Why do lawyers refer to long documents as briefs and
18-year olds as infants? Why do they use so much Latin when so few of their
clients are Ancient Romans? Is it a conspiracy?

Party of the First Part has the answers! Check out the Website for the
Legalese Hall of Shame; a glossary of legal words linked to Adam Freedman's
columns; tips on writing legal documents in plain English; and more!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Word of the Week


An action to recover possession of tangible personal property wrongfully taken or withheld by another. In ancient usage, it could also refer to an action to recover a person; that is, by bailing him out of jail. It comes from the Old French replevir. The verb form is replevy, which is often used in its polite form, "replevy, s'il vous plaƮt."

Plain Language Around the World

There's been a recent outbreak of common sense throughout the English-speaking world. Herewith (!), a recap of some current plain language initiatives.

  • In Newfoundland, the Public Legal Information Association is publishing booklets to provide "legal information without the legalese." (Thanks to Voice of the Common Man, Newfoundland).

  • Canadians are also leading the charge against impenetrable credit card applications. The Toronto Star reports that the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada and MasterCard Canada have unveiled a model plain language application form.

  • In Australia, an entrepeneur has launched a website with plain language advice and forms for separated parents to create custody plans without having to wade through the swamps of legalese. (Thanks to the Daily Liberal).

  • Meanwhile, here in the US of A, Tech Journal South has published a terrific article on how to "remove legalese from your writing." The author, a small business consultant, has lots of sensible advice, including such fundamental (and often overlooked) points as keeping your audience in mind.

H2 -- oh?

We don't usually think of "water" as a legal term, but the definition of water is now a controversial item among environmentalists. According to a report in the Toledo Blade, a recently-enacted interstate compact regarding use of the Great Lakes defines water as a "product," which has some people concerned that this will allow multinationals to demand access to the Lakes under international trade laws.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Word of the Week

Lemon Law

A statute that entitles the purchaser of a car that turns out to have substantial defects to return it for a refund or replacement.

For the origin of this curious term, check out this post on the Lemon Justice site. Apparently, the use of "lemon" to describe sub-standard products goes back to the early 1900's. Read more, here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Golden Gobbledygook Deadline Extended!

By popular demand, we've extended the deadline for submitting entries to the Second Annual Golden Gobbledygook Award to October 28th!

Yes, Golden Gobbledygook -- the coveted prize for the best example of bad legalese. You can post your entry right here at the blog (as a comment to this post), or just send the worst example of legalese you can lay your hands on to POFP (adamjfreedman@yahoo.com).

The top three winners will get a boxed set (without the box) of the new paperback edition of my book The Party of the First Part, together with the Vocabula Review's new essay collection (a must for all language lovers): Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue. Our distinguished panel of judges will announce the winners here at the POFP blog!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Word of the Week

Golden Parachute

An "excessive" severance payment to an executive. Recent coverage of the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (aka the "bailout bill") mentioned that Congress would restrict the "golden parachutes" available to companies that sold troubled assets to the Treasury. Many assumed that the media were just speaking informally, but in fact the "Golden Parachute Rule" is enshrined in the Tax Code -- imposing a 20% excise tax (on top of income tax) on any severance payment that is more than 300% of the executive's recent average annual pay.

Legal Brainteaser: What's a Country?

Sure, you're a little bit country. But what if your country isn't really a "country"?

This question -- or something like it -- recently gripped the Ninth Circuit when reviewing a deportation order against Nikolay Dzyuba. The Bureau of Immigration Appeals had ordered Dzyuba deported to the Ukraine, which they considered to the be the "country" from which he had entered the US back in 1991. The problem is that when Dzyuba entered the US, on July 5, 1991, the Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. It did not gain its independence until August 24, 1991 -- seven weeks after Dzyuba's entry.

This argument sent the judges scrambling for their copy of Webster's Third New International Dictionary but that Dictionary says that "country" can be either an independent political entity or a geographic region. As is sadly typical in modern "descriptivist" dictionaries, Webster's indicates no preference for either meaning. The question ultimately proved too daunting for the Circuit -- they kicked the case back to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals to decide whether pre-independence Ukraine was a "country."

Any bets on what they'll decide?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Straight Talk on Gobbledygook -- and Reform

Cheryl Stephens -- plain language guru -- has cleared up the original meaning of the word "gobbledygook."

The term was coined by Henry Maverick, but as Stephens points out:

Maverick said the bureaucratic style of writing reminded him of the turkeys who strutted around the yard making a lot of noise that ended in a pile of sputum on the ground. That sputum was the gobble-de-gook. Not the strut nor the song-- the spit and pus!

For more of Cheryl's wisdom, check out her terrific blog, Building Rapport. In particular, you'll see information about the Plain Language in Government Communications Act now pending in Congress. To heck with the bailout; urge your congressman to support that.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Word of the Week

Ferae Naturae

Latin (literally, "of a wild nature"); used as both a noun and an adjective to refer to animals of a sort that are not normally domesticated. Under traditional common law rules, the owner of an animal ferae naturae was strictly liable for any injuries caused by the animal.

The Second Annual Golden Gobbledygook Award!

Just what you've all been waiting for -- a Prize for the best example of bad legalese.

The term "gobbledygook" was coined by a Texas congressman, Henry Maverick. He meant for the word to evoke the sound that gobbling turkeys make. The word was meant as an indictment of confusing legalese and officialese.

But people have come to take legalese in stride; to which POFP says "Enough!

Send the worst example of legalese you can lay your hands on to POFP (adamjfreedman@yahoo.com) -- and you can be the proud winner of the Golden Gobbledygook Award. The top three winners will get a boxed set (without the box) of the new paperback edition of my book The Party of the First Part, together with the Vocabula Review's new essay collection (a must for all language lovers): Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue. Winners will be announced October 14th.

Looking for inspiration? Check out the Legalese Hall of Shame at POFP's website. (The two recent entries listed below will be considered for the prize... but the competition is wide open!).

New Entries in the Hall of Shame

Two new entries for the Legalese Hall of Shame in our related website.
  • From attorney Erin Engels, a baffling sentence from a retirement agreement. The lawyer used 150 words to say "Retiree waives his right to sue the employer." But why just "waive" a right when you can "release, remit, remise, acquit and forever discharge " a right? It's hard work, but then this was a union job.
  • From concerned citizen Howard Kline, an Ohio traffic ordinance that requires a GPS unit to navigate your way through the dangling modifiers.

In our never-ending quest to reform legal language, we've exposed these (and other) examples of bad legalese to public ridicule. Check them out at the Hall of Shame!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Fabulous Book for Language Lovers

Hot off the presses! A new collection of essays from The Vocabula Review -- an online journal devoted to battling nonstandard, careless English, while also celebrating the opulence and elegance of the English language.

The book is called: Vocabula Bound 2: Our Wresting, Writhing Tongue (the subtitle comes from a quotation by Ben Johnson). It is a collection of twenty-eight essays about the English language, as well as ten poems, that originally appeared in The Vocabula Review. Included within its covers are essays by Joseph Epstein, Judge Mark Painter, and -- yours truly.

You can order Vocabula Bound 2 from Vocabula Books or Amazon. It's also worth checking out Vocabula Review for the pleasure of reading its fascinating content.

Word of the Week

Admixed Embryo

Wired Magazine reports that Admixed Embryo is "legalese for any early-stage embryo combining human and nonhuman genes or tissue. Encompassing both cybrids and chimeras yet sounding less apocalyptic than either, these hybrids are now approved in England for stem cell research."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Word of the Week


Co-ownership of property by two or more individuals who inherited it jointly under the laws of intestate succession. The word derives from the Anglo-Norman parcenerie and Old French parsonerie, both meaning "partnership."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Word of the Week

Mischief Rule

A method of interpreting statutes, which involves asking "what was the mischief that this statute was meant to remedy?" The answer to this question will reveal the underlying purpose of the statute, which should guide all interpretation. And besides, inquiring minds want to know.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Word of the Week

A boycott is a concerted effort to refrain from buying from, selling to, or working for, some company or other organization. Some types of boycotts are illegal.

The term entered the language in 1880, thanks to Captain Charles Boycott, who was the estate agent for the Earl Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. The Earl's tenants demanded that Boycott reduce their rents and when he refused -- and began evicting tenants -- everyone in the locality agreed to stop dealing with him. Unable to find workers for the Earl's fields, or tradespeople from whom to purchase necessities, Captain Boycott eventually moved to England to pursue other opportunities, as they say. But his name had already become famous. By November 1880, the Times of London used "boycott" as a verb. The rest is history.

Oh Kannada!

According to OutlookIndia, a legal battle is brewing over the status of the Kannada language of India. Not whether Kannada is an "official" language of India (it already is), but whether Kannada deserves to be recognized as a "classical" language.

A constitutional decree in 2004 created a new category of languages in India -- languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a 'classical language.' Tamil and, a year later, Sanskrit, have been accorded the status. But so far, Kannada has not.

On the off-chance you're not familiar with it, Kannada is one of the major Dravidian languages of India, spoken in the southern state of Karnataka. Karnataka activists have blocked an express train for 20 minutes to agitate for classical status, and they've promised to take the issue up to the Supreme Court if they don't get their way.

So if a group of ancient Romans blocks a train in your neighborhood, don't be alarmed; they're probably just agitating to get more respect for Latin.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Calling all Scribes

Last Saturday (August 9) was the annual luncheon for Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers. This was the first Scribes luncheon I had attended and it was great fun -- an entire roomful of law-and-language nerds! What could be better?

The guest of honor was Justice Antonin Scalia, who received the Scribes Lifetime Achievement Award. Justice Scalia gave a characteristically lively acceptance speech. Both Scalia and Bryan Garner stayed after the lunch to sign copies of the book they've just written together: Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges.

Also in attendance was the indefatigable Lisa Solomon, whose website, The Billable Hour (www.thebillablehour.com), is a great source for all things legal (including, ahem, my book). And Scribes Executive Director, Joe Kimble, was there with copies of his lucid book, Lifting the Fog of Legalese.

If you want to know more about Scribes, check out their website www.scribes.org.

Word of the Week


Robbery is a theft committed in the presence of the victim -- a hold up. As the legal lexicographer John Cowell wrote in 1607:

Robberie commeth from the French, and in our common lawe [signifies] a
felonious taking away of another mans goods from his person or presence, against
his will, putting him in feare, and of purpose to steal the same goods

Highway robbery was, at first, not a metaphor, but a technical offense -- a robbery committed on the King's highway, and it carried a heavier sentence.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Word of the Week

Sua Sponte

Latin. Of its (his, her, their) own accord. This term refers to action taken by a court without being asked to do so by a party, e.g., The court dismissed the claim sua sponte.

Occasionally pronounced (at least by lawyers at my old firm) as "sua spumoni," which of course means "of his own Italian ice cream." Which reminds me, National Spumoni Day is coming up soon -- August 21!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Word of the Week

To Bear Arms

This has to be the phrase of the week -- perhaps of the year. Depending on which side of the gun rack you stand, "to bear arms" is:

  1. a plain English term, meaning "to carry weapons";
  2. an idiomatic phrase, used by the Founding Fathers to convey "military service"; or
  3. a mistaken spelling of "bare arms" (because the Founders wanted Minutemen to show off their muscles).

Read my full commentary in the next post -- soon to be published (in slightly different versions) in New York Law Journal Magazine and Vocabula Review.

The DC Gun Case: Loaded Words

On June 26, the Supreme Court fired off its decision in DC v. Heller, holding that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to possess firearms, unconnected to military service.

The Heller case – long anticipated as the Court’s first-ever comprehensive interpretation of the right “to keep and bear arms” – generated an astounding 67 amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs. But of those 67 briefs, the only one cited by both the majority and dissenting opinions was one submitted by a group of professors of linguistics and English, the so-called “Linguists’ Brief.”

These language scholars took center stage because of the dearth of judicial precedent on the Second Amendment. In the absence of helpful prior decisions, the Court had to start from scratch in decoding the “original meaning” of the Amendment. While various briefs cited founding-era dictionaries, only the Linguists devoted their entire brief to the niceties of eighteenth century grammar and usage.

That may seem like a lot of fuss for a single sentence – but then, this is no ordinary sentence. The Second Amendment says:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

You will immediately notice that the sentence has two parts, a “prefatory” clause (the bit ending in “State”), and an “operative” clause (everything after “State”). The relationship between those two clauses has bedeviled scholars for years. Gun control advocates say that the prefatory clause limits the scope of the amendment to militia members, while their opponents claim that the operative clause creates an individual right to bear arms that cannot be fettered by the preface. Unfortunately, there is nowhere else in the Constitution to look for guidance: the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause is the only one of its kind in that document.

The Linguists tell us that the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment is what’s known as an “absolute clause,” that is, an adverbial phrase that is separate from the main clause of the sentence. Such clauses are called “absolute” because they are grammatically independent from the rest of the sentence – no word in the absolute clause can be said to modify any particular word in the main clause.

On the strength of that grammatical autonomy, some gun enthusiasts argued that the prefatory clause has no impact whatsoever on the operative clause. George Mason Law Professor Nelson Lund, for example, wrote in an academic paper that “the Second Amendment has exactly the same meaning that it would have if the preamble [i.e., prefatory clause] had been omitted.”

The Linguists attacked Lund’s assertion with a fusillade of grammar books demonstrating that an absolute clause, while grammatically distinct, “add[s] meaning to the entire sentence.” The Linguists’ point can be seen in an absolute construction that is still in common use: “weather permitting, I will go for a walk.” In that sentence, “weather permitting” is the absolute clause (tip – such clauses typically involve verbs ending in “-ing”). The main clause stands on its own grammatically, but the absolute clause modifies the speaker’s intention to go for a walk.

The Second Amendment’s absolute clause, according to the Linguists, expresses a causal connection; namely “because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, readily concedes that there is a logical link between the two halves of the sentence, but he argues that the prefatory clause merely announces a purpose of the operative clause, not the purpose (other purposes of gun ownership include hunting and self-defense). On this reading, the Second Amendment is really about allowing individuals to own guns, the fact that this right happens to bolster the militia is simply an added plus.

And then there is the operative clause’s guarantee of a right “to keep and bear Arms.” Neither side is entirely happy with that phrase. The majority opinion focuses on the straightforward word “keep” while the dissent spends most of its time on the more complicated “bear.”

“Keep” has much the same meaning as it did in 1773, when Samuel Johnson defined it as “[t]o retain; not to lose,” and “[t]o have in custody.” Standing alone, the right “to keep arms” suggests an individual right to have a gun in your house – preferably locked in a child-proof drawer, but an individual right all the same.

The Founders, however, did not create a stand-alone right to “keep arms,” they joined it with the right “to bear arms.” In the High Court, the battle over the Second Amendment’s operative clause came down to the question of whether “bear arms” must be understood in an idiomatic or non-idiomatic sense. An idiom is an expression that is peculiar to a language (from Latin idioma, “peculiarity”), and which conveys a meaning different from its literal or logical signification.

The dissent argues that in the eighteenth century, “bear arms” was an idiomatic expression meaning “to perform military service,” thus emphasizing the martial purpose of the amendment. Among the many examples quoted in the Linguists’ Brief is the Declaration of Independence, which denounces King George for forcing American colonists “to bear Arms against their country.” The Linguists also cite an academic survey of newspapers, books, and pamphlets from the founding era: of 115 texts using the term “bear arms,” all but five did so in a military context.

Further supporting the dissenters’ interpretation, the Linguists demonstrated that the word “arms,” even without the “bear,” had an overwhelmingly military connotation in the late eighteenth century. In his 1794 treatise, The Distinction Between Words Esteemed Synonymous in the English Language, John Trusler distinguishes “arms” from “weapons,” stating that the former are “instruments of offence generally made use of in war.” Based on the evidence, one is tempted to agree with Yale professor Akhil Amar that “the Framers [of the Second Amendment] envisioned Minutemen bearing guns, not Daniel Boone gunning bears.”

And yet, Justice Scalia was having none of it. He rather ingeniously contends that the idiomatic sense of “bear arms” only existed when those words were followed by the preposition “against.” It’s not clear where Scalia got that argument – The Complete Idiom’s Guide to the Second Amendment ? – but it allows him to conclude that the Founders intended “bear arms” in the non-idiomatic sense of “to carry arms.” In other words, you have right to your gun, whether or not you join the militia. As the majority spokesman, Scalia had the last word, a fact that may have left the much-cited Linguists feeling as though they had been shooting blanks.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Work, Work, Work

In the case of Tyson Foods, Inc. v. de Ascencio, the Supreme Court is currently considering the issue of whether the word "work" under the Fair Labor Standards Act includes the time spent donning light protective gear, "if the activities do not require a significant level of exertion." Read the rest at Scotus Blog. All I can say is: if doing work requires a "significant level of exertion," then I want no part of it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Word of the Week


An adjective from Law French meaning "firstborn," it also has a metaphorical sense of "prior" or "superior" (giving rise to constructions such as eigne title). Old English law, with its fine distinctions, recognized the status of bastard eigne -- the firstborn illegitimate son of parents who subsequently married and had a legitimate son. Whatever would we do without that term?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Word of the Week


Dead or decayed trees that cannot be used for timber. They are distinguished from windfalls - trees and their fruits that are blown down by the wind. A tenant for life may cut down dotards, but does not get the windfalls. (See L.B. Curzon, Dictionary of the Law).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

La Loi Dans Le Yukon, eh?

A small claims case over C$13,000 will end up costing Canadian taxpayers over ten times that amount -- all because of a violation of "language rights."

The defendant, who owns a bed & breakfast, was originally held liable for unpaid bills to a local construction firm in the Whitehorse area of the Yukon. But the Yukon Court of Appeal vacated the judgment because the defendant (a francophone) was not given the opportunity to defend himself in French, as Canada's language laws require. The Court ordered the provincial government to pay C$143,000 to the parties and lawyers for their expenses in litigating this weighty issue.

Word of the Week


A prospective juror -- before becoming an actual juror, the venireman must pass the voir dire examination.

The word derives from the ancient writ of Venire Facias Juratores, literally, "to make the jurors come" -- it was an order to the sheriff to summon a jury (venire is Latin for "to come"). The writ was sometimes known simply as Venire Facias, or even just Venire.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Word of the Week

Turntable Doctrine

Also known as "attractive nuisance" (one of the law's great oxymorons) -- this doctrine holds that the owner of premises must not keep unguarded machinery or other items that might attract or lure children into hurting themselves. If a child does wander on to the property and end up with injuries, the owner cannot argue that the kid was trespassing: the attractiveness of the machinery/structure amounts to an implied invitation to enter.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, the name comes from "the dangerous and alluring qualities of a railroad turntable."


And I think we all know what that means.

Or do we? Maryland's Court of Special Appeals recently had to consider the question of whether the term "What's up?" -- when uttered by a policeman -- constitutes a greeting, or an interrogation. The issue arose in the criminal trial of one Maurice Prioleau. Shortly after Mr. Prioleau was arrested for drug possession, a Baltimore cop addressed him by saying "What's up, Maurice?" -- to which Mr. Prioleau gave an incriminating response.

Prioleau's lawyers argued that "what's up?" amounts to a police interrogation and, therefore, that Maurice should have been given a Miranda warning before he answered. Granted, the question mark sure makes it look interrogatory, but the court sided with police, stating:

"The phrase 'what's up?' is commonly used as a greeting, especially, as the State
points out, among young people."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Word of the Week


Okay, not exactly a legal word but very close. It's what they call a "portmanteau" word, that is a merger of two existing words -- like, say, advertorial. It's a blend of Elliot Spitzer and schadenfreude, the splendid German word meaning "malicious enjoyment in the misfortune of others." Spitzerfreude (sometimes spelled Spitzenfreude) is defined as "malicious enjoyment in the misfortune of Client 9."

Meanwhile, as speculation mounts that Spitzer might plead to a Mann Act violation, it's worth noting that the original name of the statute was the "Mann White Slave Trade Traffic Act" -- "white slavery" being a nineteenth century term for the act of forcing young women in prostitution.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Word of the Week

Goods and Chattels

It's one of those phrases with legal overtones but no clear definition. Traditionally, the phrase is taken to refer to every type of personal property except a freehold title. It can even include interests in land, such a lease.

"Good" is an English word, related to the Old Norse gothr. "Chattel" comes from the Old French chatel, and ultimately from the Latin catalla, which literally means cattle. Somehow, the French came to use "cattle" to refer to any moveable good; which is an odd usage, given that cattle are notoriously difficult to move. Medieval "law French" pleadings from England refer to "biens et chateaux." As so often happened with these old expressions, English lawyers decided to translate half of the phrase (thus changing biens to good), but leaving the other half foreign.

Shakespeare, who as I have commented elsewhere, knew his law, has the character Petruchio (Taming of the Shrew) exclaim: "I will be master of what is mine own. She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house."

Patently Obvious

Necessity is the mother of invention. And invention, it turns out, is the mother of litigation.

A Supreme Court ruling last Spring sent shockwaves through the already-litigious world of intellectual property by making it easier to challenge the validity of a patent. Patent reform legislation currently making its way through Congress threatens to further upset the apple cart. Much of the controversy turns on the definition of a single word, and it’s obvious. That is, the word in question is “obvious.”

Click here to read the entire column.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Word of the Week

Fighting Words Doctrine

The First Amendment doctrine that holds that certain utterances are not constitutionally protected as free speech if they are "inherently likely to provoke a violent response from the audience" (Black's). Besides which, it's horrible manners.

SEC Chairman: Cut the Gobbledygook!

In testimony last week before the House Small Business Committee, Christopher Cox, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, explained how cutting out legalese from government documents and required disclosures is good for business. Chairman Cox discussed the SEC's recent proposal for plain English summary prospectuses for mutual funds. He also supported a bill now before Congress, the "Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007," which would require the use of plain language in any new or revised document issued by a federal agency.

Denounce and Reject

For those who were intrigued -- but perhaps confused -- by last Tuesday's linguistic squabble between Hillary and Barack over the differences between "denouncing" and "rejecting" Louis Farrakhan, POFP has kindly deconstructed the whole thing. See my piece in today's New York Times for the real story!

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Slashdot reports continuing controversy over the confusing language of the "Open Specification Promise" that Microsoft imposes on users of its Open Office XML (OOXML). The OSP, which was originally titled "covenant not to sue" includes a promise by Microsoft not to assert certain patent claims against the user (to figure out which claims, one has to go through a long list of specifications and then relate them back to whatever Microsoft patents exist in the world). In return for Microsoft's "personal promise" not to sue you, you are deemed to make some promises back to Microsoft.

As Slashdot says: Developers wishing to make use of OOXML are unlikely to understand the complex legal language of the Open Specification Promise, and such a document - being neither a release nor a contract - has never been tested in court.

Word of the Week

Ejusdem Generis

Latin for "of the same kind." This is a legal rule for interpreting legal documents and statutes. Such rules are also known as "canons of construction" (see my earlier post on canons of construction in environmental law). The basic idea is that if words belonging to a certain genus are followed by more general words, then the general words are assumed to describe only things belonging to the same genus. So if Mr. Smith's bequeaths "my Ford, Buick and other vehicles" to his nephew, a court would probably conclude that his bequest did not include his private airplane (even though an airplane could be a "vehicle").

Monday, February 18, 2008

Word of the Week

Scotch Verdict

A verdict of "not proven" permitted under Scottish law. It has the legal effect of an acquital (and, indeed, was the traditional manner of acquitting a defendant in Scotland). But in the 18th Century, the "not guilty" verdict gained a foothold in Scotland as a more exculpatory type of acquittal. So the "not proven" verdict now comes across as weaker -- as though the defendant is still suspect. Reportedly, Senator Arlen Specter tried to vote "not proven" on an article of impeachment of Bill Clinton. But that's just trying to vote no without voting no -- a little like smoking without inhaling.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Love and the Legal "Person"

POFP's latest column has caught the notice of the New York Times. The weekend Times featured a round-up of interesting articles in other publications, including the article by yours truly in the February Corporate Counsel magazine.

The article -- "Love, Corporate Style -- takes a Valentine's Day look at the question: Can corporations fall in love? After all, corporations are legal "persons"; they can earn income, own property, and pay taxes. Why can't they fall in love, if the right tender offer comes along.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Genital Integrity"

Got your attention?

"Genital Integrity" may be the new buzz phrase for plaintiffs' lawyers looking to cash in on botched circumcisions. The movement suffered a setback, as New York Lawyer reports, when the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a mother who didn't like the way her baby's circumcision looked could not sue the hospital for medical malpractice. Sure, and they laughed at tobacco suits at first! The woman's lawyer vowed to battle on in the fight for "genital integrity."

Here at POFP, we're planning a campaign against errant apostrophes -- we call it the battle for "genitive integrity."

Word of the Week

Companion Animal

Under various state animal cruelty statutes, a "companion animal" is an animal that is commonly considered a pet. Under New York law, the crime of aggravated cruelty to animals applies only to abuse of domesticated animals. In the landmark case of People v. Garcia, it was finally settled that pet goldfish do indeed qualify as "companion animals" -- just in case anyone was considering taking away their little plastic castle.


In a cosmic coincidence, the very funny Supreme Court Jester has taken up the goldfish/companion animal theme. He has written a detailed post about the rights of goldfish -- including goldfish divorce law!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Word of the Week

Corruption of Blood

Disqualification from inheriting, retaining, or passing on to one's heirs any rank or title or any interest in land. (See Random House Webster's Dictionary of Law). Corruption was part of the punishment of "Attainder" -- attainder being related to taint, as in "tainting the blood" -- and was reserved for heinous crimes such as treason. Both Attainder and Corruption of Blood are prohibited by the Constitution. So the good news is that you're free to pass on any title to your heirs, but then, the Constitution also prohibits the government from granting titles.

Put that in Plain Tetun!

A big -- but often overlooked -- issue in legal language is "what language is legal?" In East Timor, the news agency AKI reports that the Asia Foundation is working on translating the laws into the local language, Tetun. Until now, most of East Timor's laws were exclusively in Portuguese, a holdover from Portugal's colonial rule, which ended in 1975. That may seem like a small matter, but it has been estimated that only about 5 percent of East Timorese are fluent in Portugese; the other 95 percent have no access to the country's statutes. Until now, that is.

To all those Tetun speakers out there: welcome to the world of legalese!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Word of the Week

Grandfather Clause

The term is generally used to describe a clause in a statute that exempts a class of persons or entities from whatever new requirements are being imposed by the statute. For example, when states raised the drinking age to 21, people who had been able to drink under the old law (that is, people aged 18 - 20) where generally "grandfathered in." Although the phrase is innocently used today, its origin lies in the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws. Laws passed in Southern States imposed literacy tests on new voters, but exempted any person whose grandfather had voted. Naturally, the exempted class was entirely white. (See "A Hereditary Perk the Founding Fathers Failed to Anticipate," New York Times, January 15, 2008, A12).