Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Learned Hand on clear language—and restatement project

The language of the law must not be foreign to the ears of those who are to obey it.
That's what I jotted down when I heard someone quote it in a talk a few years ago. Here's the context:
Of the contrivances which mankind has devised to lift itself from savagery there are few to compare with the habit of assent, not to a factitious common-will, but to the law as it is. We need not go so far as Hobbes, . .  . Yet we can say with him that the state of nature is "short, brutish and nasty," and that it chiefly differs from civilized society in that the will of each is by habit and training tuned to accept some public, fixed and ascertainable standard of reference by which conduct can be judged and to which in the main it will conform. 
It is because we believe in the supreme importance of such a standard that we meet here again this year. We would make it more ascertainable; we believe that we are doing so. We realize its inevitable imperfections. Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, it shares our faults of which we would rid it if we could, as we would rid ourselves. Much might be gained in precision, for example, if we could use a technical terminology like that of science, whose conquests depend so largely upon its coined symbols, free from the emotional connotations of colloquial speech. This can not be. There is something monstrous in commands couched in invented and unfamiliar language; an alien master is the worst of all. The language of the law must not be foreign to the ears of those who are to obey it. Much again might be gained if it could be cast more nearly to accord with the aspirations of the best of our time. That, too, we can not undertake, it must fit more easily upon prevailing conventions and even prejudices; it must not be a divine code handed  down from Sinai. 
These defects do not lessen its paramount consequence to us and to our civilization. We welcome any changes, in proper season and in proper place we shall urge and demand them. But we will not forget that we have a duty perhaps even greater than that, a duty to preserve. While we know that we can do little to help these men in their amazing labors, we come to pledge our faith in it and in them. We set our eyes to the future but we plant our feet upon the foundation of the common-law.

Learned Hand, Is There a Common Will, 28 Mich. L. Rev. 46,   (1929) (address delivered at banquet of the American Law Institute, Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC, May 11, 1929)

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