Tuesday, May 27, 2014
When I first began blogging, I focused on exploring category construction as a tool of appellate advocacy. Today, I want to talk about the second given: categories imply a world that contains them. It basically boils down to container logic—does the object fit within the parameters defining the category? If so, it belongs, and if not, it obviously does not belong.
The way a category is defined necessarily constructs the boundaries surrounding what belongs. Take for instance the category of planets. When I was growing up, I was taught we had nine planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Those nine belonged to the “world” of planets. But in 2006, astronomers declared that Pluto is no longer a planet. This change occurred because the category of planets was redefined. Pluto belonged to the world of planets when the definition did not require a planet to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit. Once the category changed to require a planet dominate its neighborhood, Pluto, whose moon is half its size, got nudged out of this world containing planets.
In terms of appellate advocacy, this principle becomes incredibly important, especially in light of the first principle that categories are made and not found. We see attorneys constantly battling over how to define the legal world applicable to a given case, and in judicial opinions we see judges struggle to define a world clearly encompassing the resolution of the case. Take for example a recent Ninth Circuit opinion, United States v. Ezeta. There the defendant successfully moved to dismiss an indictment by claiming that the defendant did not “obtain” federal financial aid as defined by the statute. The defendant claimed that “obtain” as used in the statute meant to exercise dominion and control over the financial aid, and that since the defendant had assisted other students in completing and submitting forms, he had not exercised dominion and control over the funds in violation of the statute.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the category of “obtain” as adopted by the district court defined a world that was far too narrow. In a relatively straightforward statutory analysis, the Ninth Circuit defined a world around the meaning of “obtain” to include procurement on behalf of someone else. In so doing, the Court created a world large enough to encompass the acts committed by Mr. Ezeta, and his case has now been remanded for prosecution in District Court.
As advocates, attorneys must constantly assess the boundaries of the world surrounding legal disputes. This principle that categories imply a world that contains them provides appellate attorneys the creative power to identify existing categories and imagine better ones for solving legal disputes.