Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What Tangled Webs of Words We Weave

A long time ago. A really long time ago, when I was a practicing lawyer, that’s how long it was, I enrolled in a Keogh plan. Not so long ago, it was worth something. Why would a young, carefree bachelor (wait a minute, strike the word “carefree”) want a Keogh plan? It might have had something to do with an admonition from my contracts professor in law school at the beginning of the semester. He cautioned that those searching for certainty would best not enroll in law school. At the time the warning seemed counterintuitive. The law was supposed to provide certainty and predictability. But, as I read judicial opinions, I became more and more certain of the law's uncertainty. This well could have stemmed from the uncertainty of my ability to comprehend some of these opinions, or was it the uncertainty inherent in language?

I thought that perhaps I had mastered the uncertainty of language when I tried to make sense of Penal Code section 1203.2a. To give you a taste of what I was up against, here is the first sentence of the statute, all 177 words:

If any defendant who has been released on probation is committed to a prison in this state or another state for another offense, the court which released him or her on probation shall have jurisdiction to impose sentence, if no sentence has previously been imposed for the offense for which he or she was granted probation, in the absence of the defendant, on the request of the defendant made through his or her counsel, or by himself or herself in writing, if such writing is signed in the presence of the warden of the prison in which he or she is confined or the duly authorized representative of the warden, and the warden or his or her representative attests both that the defendant has made and signed such request and that he or she states that he or she wishes the court to impose sentence in the case in which he or she was released on probation, in his or her absence and without him or her being represented by counsel.

Got it? That paragraph is a piece of cake compared to the third paragraph, which I do not have the heart to quote. Suffice it to say, it did not make sense to me on the first read. But my intuition told me that meaning lay hidden in
1203.2a's forbidding density. Want to know what I thought of all this back in 1991? See People v. Holt (1991) 226 Cal.App.3d 962.

Just in case you are not rushing to call up the case, I will share my comments, despite it being unbecoming to quote one’s self. "It is an unenviable chore to consider section 1203.2a. The statute reflects a disregard for careful drafting and contempt for the English language. Meandering clauses in which the subject and predicate are ruthlessly separated from one another, jumps in thought and logic, and a lack of organization make the going difficult." Holt, at p. 965. I persevered in my "trek through the statute's thicket of tangled clauses." I took on the fearsome first sentence and wrestled with its mind-numbing language. I then struggled with other unwieldy sentences and miniaturized them, or, if you will, cut them down to size.

This herculean effort allowed me to pin section 1203.2a's gangly shoulders to the floor so that I could wrest from it meaning, after which I needed a rest. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

To once again quote myself, "Our (a sop to my colleagues who concurred) efforts have not gone unrewarded. The statute has a specific meaning that apparently was not discernible to other courts." Holt, at p. 965. That last sentence did not win many friends in those "other courts." And some colleagues in subsequent decisions rejected my interpretation. But a few years later, the California Supreme Court, in a masterful display of erudition, saw it my way. In re Hoddinott (1996) 12 Cal.4th 992. The statute concerns a defendant who has been placed on probation and is committed to prison for another offense. The court that placed him on probation has jurisdiction to impose sentence under certain conditions concealed, I mean specified, in the statute.

Please, it is unnecessary to register your admiration for my unflagging efforts. It's all in a day's work.

But my insecurity about uncertainty remains imbedded in my DNA. And this takes me back to my Keogh plan. It had grown over the years, until recently when it took a nosedive, bringing home to me that sound financial planning (an oxymoron) can still lead to uncertainty. If that wasn’t enough, the geniuses from the financial group who invested my funds in a variable annuity account recently sent me a letter titled, “Supplement to the May 1, 2009 Prospectus.” The letter informs that the following paragraph replaces a paragraph in the Option 1 section of my prospectus. The enlightening paragraph states:

If rebalancing is required, the contract value in excess of 30% will be removed from the Limited Subaccounts on a pro rata basis and invested in the remaining Non-Limited Subaccounts on a pro rata basis according to the contract value percentages in the Non-Limited Subaccounts at the time of the reallocation. If there is no contract value in the Non-Limited Subaccounts at that time, all contract value removed from the Limited Subaccounts will be placed in the Delaware VIP Limited-Term Diversified Income Series subaccount. We reserve the right to designate a different investment option other than the Delaware VIP Limited-Term Diversified Income Series as the default investment option should there be no contract value in the Non-Limited Subaccounts. We will provide you with notice of such change. Confirmation of the rebalancing will appear on your quarterly statement and you will not receive an individual confirmation after each reallocation.

The last two sentences are understandable, albeit, not comforting. But I am willing to bet the seeming gibberish in all the other sentences has something in common with the 177-word sentence in Penal Code section 1203.2a. These impenetrable sentences actually mean something. All I have to do is take the time and patience to decipher their meaning. But first I must read the paragraph in the Option 1 section of my prospectus. Lots of luck finding that. Nevertheless, I think I can gather the meaning of the paragraph by once again relying on my intuition, but here I can do so without enduring the exhausting battle of section 1203.2a. Yes, I think I have it. I lose money.

This all proves that judges' work is not pretty. We must ferret out meaning from perplexing statutes and abstruse appellate briefs. (I leave for another day the task facing those who seek to divine the meaning of appellate opinions and trial courts' statements of decision.) We do not seek praise or a pat on the back for our efforts. I have already alluded to this earlier. It is our job. It is why we get paid.

Speaking of pay, neither do we seek plaudits for our willingness to take a cut in pay to help reduce our state’s budget deficit. That job I leave to our legislators. I would advise them to simply wrestle the budget as I did section 1203.2a. Oh dear, it just occurred to me. They drafted section 1203.2a.