Fun with Latin!

One of the neater things about law school, for me, is the abundance of Latin terminology. There's not really a good reason for it, near as I can tell, except as jargon that creates a barrier to entry that helps keep lay persons from thinking they could represent themselves just as well as a lawyer. This doesn't stop lay people from learning some legal Latin phrases and believing they can represent themselves in court, but I digress (although I will point out that, the more I learn of the law, particularly the law of Civil Procedure, the more I have come to the conclusion that a layperson has no real hope of prevailing when representing themself in court. Further, I now believe that, if you have an ounce of self-consciousness, the experience of representing yourself in court would have a high probability of going down as the most embarassing event in your life).

In any case, my copy of Black's Law Dictionary has a lengthy glossary of Legal Maxims, broad principals from which courts can reason when making a decision. Naturally, these are all in latin, and I plan to memorize some of them so that I can whip them out at parties and sound smart. A few of them, chosen at random:

In ambigua voce legis ea potius accipienda est significatio quae vitio caret; praesertim cum etiam voluntas legis ex hoc colligi possit. (In an ambiguous expression of the law, the meaning will be preferred that is free of defect, especially when the intent of the law can be gathered from it)

Negatio destruit negationem, et ambae faciunt affirmationem. (A negative destroys a negative, and both make an affirmative)

Jurisdictio est potestas de publico introducta, cum necessitate juris dicendi. (Jurisdiction is a power introduced for the public good, on account of the necessity of dispensing justice)

These are all, you will note, quite banal, but the fact that they're in latin makes them sound smart and inscrutable. Take the second. Someone drops that in conversation. You don't know what he's talking about, but you nod along so as not to sound like you're dumb. All he's said is "A double-negative is a positive," but by doing it in Latin, he made himself look smart and he made you feel dumb. This is essentially a big trick that the legal profession has been playing on the general public for years.

Another fun aspect of legal latin comes in case names. Most case names fall into the standard Party X vs. Party Y format (though, it should be pointed out, in common legal parlance you write it Party X v. Party Y and pronounce it "Party X vee Party Y," because lawyers are too busy and important to type the s or pronounces "Ersus"), but occasionally, for whatever reason, cases don't follow that nomenclature. As an example, some maritime cases are just named after whatever the ship in question is, hence there is an important standard-of-care case for tugboats called The TJ Hooper. Further, there are some single-party cases that involve Latin phrases, such as in re and ex parte. This is fun because you get a juxtaposition of Latin with American names, as in the cases of in re Phelan or ex parte Milligan, both real (and important)cases.

One other note on formal legal language, not latin. In old-style pleadings (pleadings being the broad statements of the case made by the parties to the court, Plaintiff submits a pleading alledging a trespass by defendant, explaining the facts, and the legal grounds for recovery, then Defendant submits a pleading denying the case, perhaps disputing the facts, perhaps disputing the legal theory, etc.) it was traditional to begin all pleadings with the phrase "Comes now . . ." as in "Comes now a plaintiff . . ." When I read that in old, eighteenth-century English pleadings, I feel like it should be the title of a very stodgy British pornographic movie.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 24, 2005 2:37 PM.

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