Monday, January 26, 2009

Lie to Me

In my latest FindLaw column, I use the botched oath as a vehicle for exploring the differences between the jurisprudential philosophies of President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts. Here I want to expand on a tangential point I make in the column: the purposes oaths serve.

In a trial and some other contexts (like filing a tax form), witnesses and others swear an oath to tell the truth. The oath then subjects the oath-taker to criminal prosecution for lying. However, this is merely the way we have chosen to structure the law. Neither due process nor any other constitutional principle would be offended by a law that criminalized lying in any particular setting, even absent an oath. For example, prosecution for lying to the FBI does not require that the liar have taken an oath to tell the truth in advance.

So why require an oath at trial and in other contexts? Presumably, for at least two reasons: First, to warn and remind the oath-taker of the possibility of prosecution for perjury; and second, to impress upon the oath-taker the seriousness of the occasion, quite apart from any fear of prosecution. Whether the oath actually advances either of these aims is questionable. So too is a third reason that has sometimes been invoked for requiring oaths: that liars and other disreputable people will be unwilling to take the oath. It is hard to imagine that there are a lot of people who would be willing to lie while not under oath but are not willing to lie in an oath. And remember, we can't say that the willingness depends upon the possibility of prosecution, because we could criminalize the lie even without the oath.

The foregoing analysis applies as well to loyalty oaths. The people who, during the McCarthy era and at other times, were too scrupulous to recite a loyalty oath were unlikely to be actual Communist agents working to overthrow the government.

So perhaps the point of the oath is to harness religious obligations to secular ends: There might be some people who would be willing to lie, even at the risk of prosecution, without an oath, but would be unwilling to do so after having sworn to God that they would not. Fear of prosecution is one thing; fear of eternal Damnation is something considerably worse. Here too I'm skeptical of the actual efficacy of oath-taking. Even without the oath, religious people in the three Mosaic faiths are already under the obligation, "Thous shalt not lie." Willingness to violate the scriptural injunction standing alone probably connotes willingness to violate the same injunction coupled with a promise to the Almighty.

Thus, it seems that the principal actual function of an oath, in any context, is simply to solemnify the occasion on which it occurs. It has the added and unfortunate side effect, however, of sometimes weeding out for persecution those people (e.g., Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, some pacifists) who do not agree with the oath but are too scrupulous to recite it anyway. Perhaps we'd be better off dispensing with oaths and just training everybody to read microexpressions.

Posted by Mike Dorf

11 comments:

Adam S. said...

To the extent that the tribunal is a third party beneficiary of a relgious oath between a believing Jew and God, it's interesting to note that the annual Kol Nidre (all oaths) ceremony prospectively forgives all such oaths; the thought was that people undertook all sorts of irrational and harmful (vis-a-vis third parties or themselves) oaths that they couldn't otherwise unwind (God being a somewhat silent party to the agreement and religious courts being hard to convene). Thus, might the third party beneficiaries of a Jewish oath of this kind have to seek comfort only in the injunction against bearing false witness, without the added layer?
Lest this tidbit be misconstrued (as it was for generations), the prospective nullifciation of oaths applied only to Person-God oaths. Commercial obligations and contracts, indeed all mortal-mortal contracts, were excluded from the ritual and remained binding.

Russell said...

With respect to the nullification of religious oaths, I think it's worthwhile to query whether a vow to tell the truth to a tribunal is actually more like a "human-divine" oath ("I vow that I will fast every Monday if God delivers me from this peril") or a "human-human" oath ("I promise to pay Joe $100 if he fixes my car.").

Also, although it's somewhat tangential to Prof. Dorf's main point, at least as a matter of Jewish law, I'm not sure that the rule "Thou Shalt Not Lie" entirely obviates the oath requirement. There are a number of cases in which Jewish law specifically *requires* a claimant to swear to a particular fact before the court, rather than simply stating it. Of course, what is interesting is that, if I recall correctly, the sworn statement is then given a substantial presumption of validity, on the assumption that nobody would knowingly violate the prohibition on not fulfilling a vow/violating an oath. (Which I believe, is enumerated by most authorities as a separate obligation apart from the prohibition on lying.)

Ricky said...

And of course:

"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation." James 5:12 (echoing the Sermon on the Mount, at Matthew 5:33-37).

Also, have you seen this one yet? Classic -

http://xkcd.com/535/

jtwright said...

Your analysis of the fumbled oath in the FindLaw column states "it can be argued that the President is not eligible to perform any official acts until after he has taken the oath" but does not weigh in on that argument. After all, what does it mean to be President at noon on Jan 20, if one does not hold the powers and authority of the presidency?

This interpretation also puts the oath in an odd position. No other action the president could take (short of resignation, a declaration of incapacity, or suicide) would, per se, deny him the powers or authority of the presidency.

Should the oath therefore be seen "only" as a duty (much like faithfully upholding the laws or delivering a State of the Union) whose avoidance, while unlawful, would not invalidate his executive orders?

Seen in this light, the most that could be said of the oath fumbling is that, as president, Obama failed to do his duty, not that he had not inherited the powers of the presidency.

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狗熊克星 said...

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當中岳庭是非常成功的一個例子,天生有點雞胸,為了挽救大小奶的窘況,以及順便解決雞胸的困擾,所以才會決定進行隆乳,在和醫師充份的討論之後決定了隆乳手術的流程,這是一個十分成功的手術,若您也想要有美美的胸型歡迎來電洽詢。