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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Reflections on Week 1 of “real” class

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 22, 2009 in Weekend Roundup

Thanks for the handful of panicked text messages I got from folks wondering if something was wrong because I hadn’t posted an entry for the night, I’m alive and well :)

Sorry for not posting something in a more timely fashion — my friend é›…é›… and I decided to try and replicate my grandmother’s recipe for spaghetti, and after eating a very large and tasty dinner (the experiment was a success) I ended up falling asleep.  Last thing I remember was watching “Locked and Loaded with R. Lee Ermey” on the History Channel, wondering where I put my laptop so I could write my post for the day… then my cell phone alarm going off at 6am >_<


Now that Week 1 of “real class” is finished, there are a few things I’ve realized so far:

  1. Law school isn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  I’m sure it will get worse throughout the semester, but looking at the reading lists the volume of material is easily readable and comprehensible for a typical law student (I can’t speak for non-traditional students like folks raising families or students working 20-hour a week jobs — y’all are better people than I am!)

  2. It’s also a lot of fun.  Having worked in a variety of law-related areas back when I was a college dropout, finally understanding the intricacies of the legal arguments I used to read in briefs or hear in oral arguments is like a bunch of little lightbulbs turning on in your head.  And having classmates who I know are smarter than I am makes the debates that much more fun because of the challenge.

  3. Legal Reasoning & Analysis is going to be my “love/hate” class.  The smaller class size in lab is great to see people’s thought processes up close (including who comes at things from a prosecutorial vs a defense mindset), but the way we’re being taught to break down the applicable rules and case law is totally conflicting with the Computer Scientist in me.  It reminds me of this Dos Equis commercial and “speaking French… in Russian.”  More on LRA in a later entry.

  4. Not sure if it was total coincidence or fate, but having the Gang of Eight in the back with me makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable.  If you’re a 1L, find some friends before everyone cliques up — you’ll be glad you did :)

  5. Even though a few more-seasoned students have told me I’m strange for it (including Delta the 2L), I genuinely like all of my professors. They’ve all got strikingly different personalities: Professor Contracts has a ton of energy for an early morning class and an excellent sense of humor, Mean Dean Green has a sarcastic streak almost as wide as mine, and you’ve already read about Professor Torts and her no-nonsense attitude. Throw in the Traveling Professor (my Property I teacher) and Professor LRA, and the group is providing a well-meshed experience for all of us.

  6. The mere possibility of being a good student again is an intense incentive to perform.  By my last couple semesters at N.C. State, I had so many credit hours between my Computer Science major and minors in Economics and Political Science that I could have failed every class and it wouldn’t  have significantly impacted my GPA… and could have gotten an A+ in all of them with similarly negligible effects.  That’s a recipe for the most hellacious case of senioritis one can experience.  Now I actually enjoying studying again (for now).


That’s it for this entry.  Going to take Saturday off and try to clean up the apartment a bit… including the spaghetti sauce I left on the stove after falling asleep last night.  Have a great day everybody! :D

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This is why I don’t read for fun…

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Aug 19, 2009 in The 1L Life

[Edit @ 1:36pm: apparently while revising this thing a few hours ago I somehow deleted half the post and turned off comments without realizing it — added the rest of the post back in and turned comments and trackbacks back on.  Sorry for the confusion to those of you who already read it >_<  –TDot]


My day so far:

1:32am: Stay up late reading the federal and NC Rules of Civil Procedure for fun, because I’m pretty fascinated by process.  Forget that I tend to oversleep when I go to bed late.  Download some tracks from iTunes for a new mixtape, set alarm on cell phone, and go to bed.

7:03am:  Open eyes, thinking it’s only 6 and I can snooze for a bit.  Notice the sunlight is brighter than normal in my room.  Wonder why my alarm hasn’t gone off.

7:04am: “Shit…”

7:06:13am: Realize I can’t recall alarm going off.  Roll over to check clock on night stand; blocked by something so I can’t see all the numbers, but can tell the first number is clearly not a ‘6’.

7:06:16am: “…shit…”

7:06:58am: Find cell phone underneath my pillow with my daily news email from the Chronicle of Higher Education opened.  Clearly I’ve already been awake at some point, cut off my alarm, and gone back to bed.

7:07:01am: “…shit!”.  Almost break the sound barrier jumping out of the bed.

7:10am: Decide to skip wearing slacks and a polo for jeans and a t-shirt.  Make up the bed.
7:11am: Change my mind on the jeans and a t-shirt.  Pull out slacks and a collarless polo. Start burning the new mixtape CD while the iron heats up.  Iron clothes.

7:15am: Realize I’ll have to skip breakfast.  Jump in the shower before waiting for water to heat up.  Curse.
7:33am: Stomach reminds me it doesn’t approve skipping breakfast.  Go throw 2 waffles in the toaster before getting dressed.
7:35am: Flip waffles and press the lever again.  Toaster only has 2 settings: “barely warm” and “charcoal.”  Note to self:  get new toaster.

7:37am: Start eating waffle by hand, without syrup (one of the greatest culinary injustices possible).  Grab keys, cards, phone holster, sunglasses.  Realize this is probably one of those reasons why the food gods invented paper plates.

7:39am: Throw half-eaten waffle and uneaten waffle on a plate, grab a can of Diet Mountain Dew, grab bookbag and books, scoop everything all up and run downstairs.  Awkwardly.

7:43am: Hit first red light (1 out of 1).  Curse.
7:46am: Hit second red light (2 out of 3).  Curse.
7:48:15am: Hit third red light (3 out of 6).  Curse.
7: 48:46am: Hit fourth red light (4 out of 7).  Curse.

7:50am: For a rap and hip-hop guy, conclude that Nickelback is actually pretty good to blast early in the morning.

7:53am:  Hit fifth red light (5 out of 13).  Don’t curse upon realization I’m slightly earlier than yesterday, when I had to sprint from the parking lot to make it in the class right as Professor LRA was getting ready to shut the door.

7:57am:  Get to side door of law school.  Remember that said door requires card access.  Use Karate Kid crane technique to balance books / soda / pocket contents and swipe the keypad.

7:58am:  Make it to class with 2 minutes to spare. w00t.

8:09am:  Conclude Professor LRA is a good high-energy professor for an 8am class, but she’s flying through these PowerPoint slides.  Couldn’t even finish reading the text on that last one.
8:10am:  Rockstar (one of my new 1L friends who sits in the back of the room with our group I’m starting to call the Gang of Eight) raises his hand and tells the professor she moved too quickly past that last slide.
8:11am:  Rockstar gets gently chewed out by Professor LRA. “I’ll post the PowerPoint on TWEN.  You blindly typing this all down doesn’t do anything.  Just sit there and listen. Let this marinate.”  She might want to have a conversation with Dr. Psyche about learning styles.

8:55am:  Done with LRA.  Grabbing a Diet Mountain Dew from the machine downstairs, posting this entry, and waiting for Civil Procedure to start… so far my favorite course, both for the content and the professor (already dubbed by some students as Mean Dean Green — no pseudonym I could think up would do justice to something that rhymes that well :))


May or may not post another entry today, I’m already feeling behind even though I’m up on the readings.  Guess you’ll just have to come back later to find out ;) (or just use an RSS reader :P)

One last note:  this city is my home now (you might notice it if you read the Drudge Report).  I’m going to love this place :D

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