Last weekend I took my son to a birthday party at his friend’s house. We walked up the heavily wooded path to the door of the house. I felt something moving in my hair and I flicked it away. The insect flew back into my hair and I flicked it away again.
The bug then flew from me and started flying up the 9-year-old’s arm. He frantically pushed it away and the very persistent and very angry wasp flew up and stung him on the back of the ear.
The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, wrote a comedy 2,500 years ago about the Athenian law courts, entitled “The Wasps.” For those not up on ancient Greece, Aristophanes was the Jon Stewart of his day. The play deals with the waspy viciousness of the law courts in Athens, generally stinging and making life miserable for those they attacked.
Hearing that short synopsis, my initial thought was that not much has changed in two-and-a-half millennia — the law still stings. In addition, Aristophanes’s critique of the Greek system was, in part, that the jurors/wasps blindly followed the interests of the current political powers over the individual.
The big joke in the play is when the household dog is put on trial for stealing some cheese. The dog’s only witnesses are household goods that can’t speak and the main character is shocked when his dog is acquitted.
Human nature and humor don’t seem to have changed much since the time of Aristophanes. Political powers still influence the law courts. The law can seem like the irrational wasp flying in the hair and tormenting individuals, yet the law has made some substantial progress.
I get emails from the Utah Appellate Court and Utah Supreme Court whenever they issue a new decision. (Go to http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/subscribe to subscribe.) I go through the decisions to see if there is anything new and interesting for this weekly column. Usually I find that the decisions deal with narrow interpretations of statutes. The most recent Utah Supreme Court decision in Rapela v. Green dealt with an interpretation of the Utah Code provisions relating to trusts.
The court’s opinion reads in part: “Section 706(2)(d) contains three prongs joined by the conjunctive term ‘and.’ . . . Ms. Rapela’s reading of section 706(2)(d) would eliminate ‘and’ from the statute and make satisfaction of the best interests prong unnecessary. We reject this construction because it would render the best interests prong ‘inoperative or superfluous.”
In English: The statute says ‘and’ and not ‘or.’
This type of decision is what most of our appellate decisions are about — a clarification and close reading of legal language to remove doubt and surprise from how the law operates. Our law is constantly refined and narrowed like this to remove uncertainty. The less uncertainty, the more consistent the results and the more likely that the law can act more like a honey bee, bringing sweetness and peace backed up by a sting, rather than the incoherent buzzings and stingings of the wasp.
A short public service announcement: As part of Weber State University’s Greek Festival (not to be confused with the more Dionysian Greek Week), I will be giving an allegedly humorous presentation at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Stewart Library Hetzel-Hoellein Room on some of the differences and similarities between the Ancient Greek and current American legal systems.
Then, at the same time and location on Tuesday, a reader’s theater will be performing Aristophanes’s play, The Wasps. Admission is free for both events.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.