The Absurdity Exception

After criticizing Democratic arguments as so much hot air (my characterization, not his), Kaimi Wenger concludes that

fuzzy logic of its decision aside, the New Jersey Supreme Court got the outcome right. Lautenberg should replace the burned-out Torch on the ballot.

…It is an accepted maxim of statutory interpretation that where a statute will give an absurd result, it may be appropriate to construe the statute so as to give a reasonable result. Hart and Sacks have famously written that laws ought to be interpreted as if written by “reasonable persons pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably.”

Good point. But I can see two responses: 1) Not switching names would not be “absurd,” since a) political parties do not have a right to have their newly preferred candidates’ names appear after a reasonable deadline has expired; and 2) “Interpretation” usually comes into play when a passage is ambiguous or unclear. No replacement closer than 51 days to an election is neither. At some point “interpretation” stops and rewriting begins; Democrats, or at least their more theoretically inclined liberal defenders, seem to see few limits on the sway of “interpretation.” If there are any limits, their behavior seems to suggest, they lay just over the horizon from where anybody ever is.

Say What? (4)

  1. CGHill October 7, 2002 at 4:59 pm | | Reply

    If there is any absurdity here, it is in the suggestion that a race without a Democrat is not “reasonable”. It’s not like there is only one other candidate in the field, and blithe disregard of the “minor-party” candidates doesn’t speak well of one’s concern for democracy.

  2. Ain't too proud to blog October 8, 2002 at 2:25 am | | Reply

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  3. Kaimi Wenger October 8, 2002 at 11:49 am | | Reply

    A technicality which results in a major party — likely to draw a large number of voters being unable to field a candidate, certainly qualifies as absurd. As I point out on my blog, what if both candidates withdrew after the deadline (but early enough to remedy) — would voters have to vote from a ballot including only minor party candidates?

  4. John Rosenberg October 8, 2002 at 2:41 pm | | Reply

    Kaimi’s point is certainly reasonable. In fact, it relies on reasonableness, i.e., it grants courts/judges the discretion to ignore clear statutory language to avoid a result considered “absurd” — in this case, requiring Democrats to write in a candidate because their official one quit after the deadline for replacement on the ballot. I myself don’t find that solution absurd, but I can see how others can. However, as long as we’re relying on the judgement and discretion of judges to determine what’s reasonable, I think it makes compellingly good sense to say that in this circumstance it was not reasonable to allow the switcheroo, since the only reason Torcho quit is that he was behind in the polls. To let a party switch candidates after a clear, unambiguous statutory deadline has passed for that reason is what’s absurd. This would still leave open the possiblity, for those who don’t like bright lines/clear rules/plain text to conclude next time that the reason for the switch is reasonable. In my opinion, Kaimi position rests on a fallacy of assuming that if this switch were not allowed, no switch for any reason after the deadline would ever be allowed.

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