Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Says Statutory Interpretation Isn't Yucky?

I urge those readers who think that the debate between textualism and purposivism in statutory interpretation is a bit on the dull/wonkish side to read my latest FindLaw column. It addresses the timeless issue---recently resolved by the Iowa Supreme Court---whether a peeping tom who masturbates outside a woman's window, but who is not seen by that woman, yet is seen (and by seen I mean "seen") by a police officer, has committed the crime of indecent exposure. The Iowa Supreme Court, in a defendant-friendly textualist opinion says he has not committed the offense as defined by the Iowa statute. A purposivist dissent accompanies the opinion. Is it only a matter of time before this case appears in casebooks for courses on Legislation and Statutory Interpretation?

Posted by Mike Dorf

15 comments:

heathu said...

I don't think fans of the "No Vehicles in the Park" exercise have anything to worry about...

Harper Jean Tobin said...

While I'm sympathetic to your general arguments about the pitfalls of strict textualism, I'm not sure this case is the best example. I wrote about this case over at my blog, Polymorphous Perversity. The result is not absurd and does not let a blameworthy defendant go free; Isaac was also convicted of harassment, which he did not challenge. Moreover, that Isaac's apparently intended victims did not see him may have been "sheer luck," but it still does and should make a difference, just as with any other crime where the crime fails to be completed by chance. A too-broad indecent exposure law could be harmful, and a purposivist analysis should also consider the other applicable laws. The legislature might have intended to criminalize Isaac's conduct as "indecent exposure," but it might also have decided that the harassment law was sufficient.

Michael C. Dorf said...

I don't actually disagree with harper jean tobin that the majority reading of the statute in the Isaac case is defensible. My criticism of the majority opinion went to the method, not necessarily the conclusion. For what it's worth, I also found somewhat off-putting the dissent's suggestion that the majority's problem was that they didn't get just how perverted people can be.

Craig J. Albert said...

The Iowa legislature could have enacted a law forbidding the inchoate offense of attempted indecent exposure, but chose not to do so. The dissent makes a persuasive argument that Isaac violated that non-existent statute. It's not surprising to me, therefore, that the State's position didn't stand up in court.

I was struck by the fact that it was the police officer who put it back in and zipped it up, rather than Isaac. Plainly, Isaac was hoping to claim that the cops planted the evidence on him.

I may have serious words to write about the idiocy of legislative intent in a future post.

Steven said...

The dissent's argument from perversion is unpersuasive and, worse, not really responsive to the court's textualist argument -- which, I should confess, I find convincing. But courts routinely bend or break the rules of textual interpretation in criminal cases where the statute refers to an intentional state (the words "intentional state" here being used in the academic philosophers' sense) or uses a normative term. "To be sure," courts say, "this behavior is innocent under any ordinary construction of [statutory term], but defendant's argument ignores the obvious fact that to depraved criminals like defendant, the conduct is not innocent." It seems to me that this kind of interpretative move is quite obviously lawless and has more than a whiff of "Sentence first! Trial after!" to it. And I'll never get why more conservatives aren't outraged by it.

An unrelated point: I don't think you're right about the court's purposes in invoking the Model Penal Code. I suspect the court is really saying something like, "The dissent argues that the statute covers Issac's conduct. But if it did, we would expect the statute to be written differently. We would, in fact, expect the statute to look like the relevant Model Penal Code provision. Because that provision omits the crucial words 'to another,' it would, if adopted, cover exactly this sort of conduct." The court isn't relying on the fact that the legislature considered and rejecetd the MPC approach.

Sure, the court *could* have made the same argument without quoting the MPC, simply by rewriting the statute and omitting the words "to another." But the fact that a respected body already did that gives the argument some added punch. And it's much faster than surveying other states' indecent exposure statutes and finding a state that (1) has an MPC-like provision and (2) has convicted an Issac.

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