Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 10/24/16 — the Rule of Lenity

The Rule of Lenity is a judicial doctrine requiring that courts use a principle of leniency when resolving ambiguities in statutes related to punishment. Should there be multiple or inconsistent penalties set out in a criminal statute, the Rule requires courts to resolve the ambiguity by applying the more lenient punishment.

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 10/17/16: The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966 after a twelve-year campaign to have it introduced and passed by Congress. Seen as controversial at the time of its passage, it was strengthened by Congressional amendment in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Now widely seen as one of the most important pieces of 20th century legislation, the FOIA Improvement Act was signed into law by President Obama in June 2016, and is designed to further improve and modernize the FOIA, particularly with respect to digital records.

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 10/10/16: Gun Laws

A recent study in The Lancet, led by BU researchers, analyzed gun control laws across the U.S. and concluded that more than 80% of gun deaths could be prevented by national adoption of 3 laws: firearm identification through ballistic imprinting or microstamping; background checks for sale of ammunition; and universal background checks for gun sales.

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 10/3/16: The Origins of the Term ‘Boilerplate’

The legal term “boilerplate” — referring to standard language used in contracts, warranties, and other legal documents — has its origins in industry. A ‘boiler plate’ originally referred to sheet steel used in the manufacture of boilers which was pre-manufactured before being assembled. An analogy was made between these and the steel plates that were distributed in the late 19th-century to newspapers containing pre-written syndicated columns or advertisements, which came to be known as “boilerplates”. These were in common use by publishers until the 1950s.


Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 9/26/16: The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights— the first 10 Amendments of the U.S. Constitution– was never an actual bill introduced before Congress. Its name was inspired by the U.K. Bill of Rights of 1689, and borrowed freely from its concepts and language, including terms such as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 9/19/16: Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

“Oyez”–a term used to open sessions of the Supreme Court, among other tribunals– is an ancient holdover from the use of Anglo-Norman in law. Meaning “to hear”, over time it was generally replaced by the expression “hear ye”. It is one of relatively few ancient words that still has the same meaning today as it did a millennium ago, although the pronunciation has changed. Commonly pronounced today as ‘oh yay’, it was originally pronounced ‘oyets’.

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 9/12/16: The Incompatibility Clause

The Constitution imposes several qualifications and restrictions on Congressional service, most notably in Article I, sections 2 and 3 (which sets out age, citizenship, and residency requirements), and the Incompatibility Clause in Article I section 6 which forbids members of Congress from also serving in the executive or judicial branches. Designed to foreclose patronage and corruption, it also effectively precludes a parliamentary-style of government in which office holders have both legislative and executive powers. Interestingly, it did not forbid simultaneous executive and judicial service – reflected by examples such as John Jay and John Marshall (both of whom served as Secretary of State while also serving on the Supreme Court). Such a practice would now be viewed as constitutionally suspect.



Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 09/06/2016: The Number of Laws in the U.S.

Want to guess the number of federal laws in the U.S.? Good luck– even the Library of Congress doesn’t know. While this is one of the most popular questions asked of the Library’s reference librarians, they point out that simply tallying the number of entries in the 125+ volumes of the Statutes at Large compendium would not suffice. Some laws repeal or amend previous laws, and the Statutes also do not include regulatory provisions or case law that has the force of law. On the state level, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 new state laws take effect every year. Unsurprisingly, there is also no reliable estimate as to the number of state laws in the U.S.

Article on Petit Treason (from the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen, January 16, 2016)

An article based on my research related to spousal murders in early nineteenth-century Montreal:

Petit Treason Threatened the Social Order (Montreal Gazette, January 8, 2016)

Ian’s Sporadic Legal Fact of the Summer 7/18/16: Failing to Plead

Under the common law, a defendant who failed to enter a plea was subjected to peine fort et dure — pressing under heavy weights — until he or she either consented to plead or died by suffocation, as it was thought the defendant was not accepting the court’s jurisdiction.  In the U.S., the only recorded use was against Giles Corey in 1692, who died as a result of this procedure during the Salem Witch Trials.  It was formally abolished in the U.K. in 1772. In common law jurisdictions, failing to plead is now treated as a ‘not guilty’ plea.

Ian’s Legal Fact for the Summer 6/27/16: The Nineteenth Amendment

As the Constitution gave power to the states to determine voting qualifications, prior to 1910 no states allowed women to vote. This changed with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited United States citizens from being denied the right to vote on the basis of gender. The Amendment was originally introduced in Congress in 1878 but not formally ratified until 1920. Wisconsin was the first state to vote to ratify, in June 1919; and the Amendment became official with Tennessee’s vote in August 1920, thereby making the presidential election of November 1920 the first in which women across the country could vote. The 48th and final state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, Mississippi, did so in 1984. Alaska and Hawaii were not states at the time of the Amendment and therefore cannot vote to ratify it.

Ian’s Legal Fact of the Week 4/25/16: ‘Wobbler’ Offenses

A ‘wobbler’, otherwise known as a ‘hybrid crime’, is one that can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. These crimes are said to ‘wobble’ between these two categories, as they can be charged as either based on a prosecutor’s discretion. The penalties are therefore dictated by whether the defendant is charged and convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Examples include assault and DUIs (both of which may be charged as felonies if they result in serious harm or death) or grand theft (depending on the value of the property). California likely has the most wobbler offenses, as it has over a hundred on the books.