The not-always-plain meaning of “Plain Meaning”

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Sep 26, 2009 in The 1L Life

[Edit @ 09/28/09:  Apparently for at least the last 3 entries I’ve been hitting “Save Draft” instead of “Publish”, and since I went out of town for the weekend I never checked the blog to make sure they were online.  So you’re getting this a couple days late.  Sorry :P]

The forecasted love/hate relationship with Legal Reasoning & Analysis was already drifting closer to the “hate” side of the pendulum.  Yesterday morning it pretty firmly stuck itself there.

We’re going over statutory analysis and various “canons of construction,” e.g. a bunch of Latin phrases that I’ve never seen any attorney actually use in practice like “noscitur a sociis”.  One useful item though is the “Plain Meaning Rule” — if a statute has a clear and unambiguous meaning, that’s the interpretation you ask the court to use.

So we were given a hypothetical case about a mom with two children, an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old (both in high school), and a deadbeat dad who left her to up a career publicizing musicians.  He has a wealthy benefactor who flies him out to various parties worldwide, a new wife who’s a doctor and provides for all the living expenses, and so on.

We’re provided a copy of NC General Statutes Chapter §50-13.4 on child support actions, and told to use the Plain Meaning Rule to make an argument as to whether or not the mom should be entitled to child support for the 18-year-old child.

Now if you remember that second entry linked up at the top in the first paragraph, on the first homework assignment we had, we broke down statutes into their pieces to check all of the “tests” embedded in them.  In other words, stuff tailor-made for a computer science person who can do Boolean algebra in his sleep.

So although I’m initially seduced by the section of exceptions relating to continuing child support payments for children over the age of 18 but still in high school, the CSC in me recalls one of the rules I learned in programming:  your program can’t throw an exception if it’s not running.  Applied to this case, in other words, the mom couldn’t rely on an exception to continue payments if she didn’t have payments coming in the first place.  Which leads me to what (I think) is the core question: what’s the common law definition of a “minor child” in NC?

Poking around Black’s Law Dictionary gives me “[a minor child is an] infant or person who is under the age of legal competence. . . . In most states, a person is no longer a minor after reaching the age of 18[.]” Just to make sure that’s applicable to North Carolina, I do a little thumbing around the statutes and come across NCGS Chapter 48A on Minors, where the first section reads “The common‑law definition of minor insofar as it pertains to the age of the minor is hereby repealed and abrogated.”  I go on to the second section, which reads “A minor is any person who has not reached the age of 18 years.”

And just to make sure I’m on the right track, I go poking around Google for some controlling NC case law and come across Crouch v. Crouch (14 N.C. App. 49) which offers the following:

When G.S. 48A-1 which repeals the common law definition of minor is construed with G.S. 48A-2, the effect is that wherever the term “minor,” “minor child” or “minor children” is used in a statute, the statute now refers to age 18. The statutes concerning child support, G.S. 50-13.4 et seq., all use the term “minor,” “minor child” or “minor children,” never referring to age 21. Therefore, in substituting the new meaning of “minor” into the statutes, the legal obligation to support one’s child ends at age 18, absent a showing that the child is insolvent, unmarried and physically or mentally incapable of earning a livelihood as was true in the Wells and Speck cases, supra, and as contemplated by G.S. 50-13.8.

Thinking I just have to be on the right track, I write my assignment from the premise that the mom can’t get child support because the son is already 18, and therefore is not a minor child for the purpose of initiating a child support action under NCGS §50-13.4.  The fact he’s still in high school doesn’t trigger the relevant exception if we’re going with the plain meaning of the statutes, since the exception is based on continuing a pre-existing obligation to pay.

I get to class on Friday, Professor LRA’s Twin posts the model response, and… absolutely nothing I have is in there.  The model argues that the mom would be entitled to child support by virtue of the exception for high schoolers.  And everyone in the class apparently put that in their analysis except for one guy (folks have been referring to him as “The Lone Gunner” so that may become his nickname here), who evidently was the only one in the entire class to agree with my perspective on the issue.

In talking to a couple family law attorneys since the class, every one of them agreed with my approach.  In talking with Professor LRA, I was told I was completely and totally wrong based on some non-statute-based explanation she provided… in other words, something not related at all to the “plain meaning” of statutes.

Thankfully this assignment wasn’t graded, because had it been an exam question I would have been screwed. So yeah, I officially hate this class.

Have a great day folks! :D

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