Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Expressio Unius Farce

"It's some Latin term, isn't it?"
-- Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist

The St. Petersburg Times called attention last week to a movement by Florida legislators to rob public school coffers in order to finance their pet voucher plans for private, primarily religious, schools. Voucher vultures now are trying to amend the state constitution to forbid the courts from ever again using a long-settled common law rule of construction known as expressio unius est exclusio alterius ("the mention of one thing is to the exclusion of others.")

The Latin-language name affixed to the doctrine gives you some idea of how old and hallowed the expressio unius judicial rule of interpretation is. It's been employed by all Western courts for centuries in a wide variety of contexts. It's one of a panoply of well-settled objective legal principles relied upon by judges to sort out the true meaning of the parties to an ambiguously written contract; the root meaning of inartfully worded statutes; and the reach of constitutional provisions when someone seeks to apply them to new and unforeseeable circumstances.

First-year law students are taught about the expressio unius doctrine just about as early as first year medical students learn to say "navel" instead of "belly button." So, you would think the Florida Attorney General -- the highest-ranking lawyer in the state -- would have a thing or two to say about this most basic legal maxim.

Wouldn't you? Nope.

Yesterday, Florida Attorney General (and candidate for governor) Charlie Crist was 'stumped' when asked about the legal maxim:
He added that he was unfamiliar with the expressio unius phrase. "It's some Latin term, isn't it? Res ipsa loquitur and ipso facto, one of those?" he joked... .
On top of this, as Matt Conigliaro points out on his estimable legal blog, Abstract Appeal, supporters of the constitutional amendment know so little about what they're doing that they wound up writing up the constitutional amendment to say the exact opposite of what they intended.

The whole thing would be great farce, if the ultimate stakes -- the distinctly American democratic idea of free public education for all -- weren't so important.

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