3.4.6 – The Legal Reasoning


Legal Reasoning

Way in which court answers legal issue

We've identified the legal issue in the case, we figured out how exactly that legal issue was teed up procedurally, and we have also figured out what exactly the factual dispute was that even led to this case getting into court. Now that we understand all that, we can really get into the meat of the opinion. The legal issue in a case is the question, and the reasoning is the way that the court answers that question.

One of the things that you're in law school to learn is how to do a legal reasoning. How do you take legal questions and get the answer? I'm not going to be able to teach you all of those details in this lesson, but I just want to show you some of the different things you might see in a legal reasoning section and how to think about it. The sections could be lengthy and they could have a lot of different kinds of arguments. I think it's helpful for you to really understand, how is this argument proceeding? Where is it going? What are the different tools the court is bringing to bear in trying to answer this legal question?

We know from the previous lesson, the question we're trying to answer is, were these jury instructions permissible? In particular, did they accurately describe the knowledge requirement under this statute? The court is going to give us an answer, but we're not going to just get there instantly. It's going to walk us through a few things, in our example Jewell case. Let's figure out how exactly the court is going to do that.

Sources that court looks at while engaging in legal reasoning include statutes, treatises, policy, legal intention, and precedents

Courts generally are going to look at a lot of different possible sources when engaging in legal reasoning. If it's a statutory case, they might look at the statute itself and its text. They might look at the legislative purpose, legislative history, try to figure out, is this what the legislature wanted? They might look at other kinds of sources. They might look at what other courts have said, that's persuasive authority. They might look at what courts have said that actually is binding authority. Higher courts or earlier decisions by the same court that are going to be binding as a matter of precedent.

They might look at things like treatises. What have distinguished scholars said about this? They don't have to follow that, but it might be relevant. They might look at other kinds of laws for analogies, and they might engage in more open policy-type reasoning. What is the just answer here? What is the moral answer here? What is fair? What is going to create economic efficiency? What is going to lead to good results or bad results?

Then, ultimately, what's going to be most consistent with logic and common sense? In any given case, you'll see some of these different tools brought to bear out of this grab bag. You're not going to see all of them in every case. In some cases, we'll rely on some more than others and they may cut in different directions, but you want to be able to categorize them. Looking at Jewell, it looks like we've got a few different things the court is going to be looking at. The first thing the court looks at is leading commentators.

They're going to cite Perkins, Edwards, Williams. What are these? These are treatise writers. These are not court decisions, but these are scholars who have written about the law and summarized it and said, "Here's what the law has required." The court doesn't have to follow this. This is something the court thinks is useful. It says, "These scholars have all said that in terms of knowledge, typically, we're going to say it's okay if, I'm going to take this Williams quote, "If a party has his suspicion aroused, but then deliberately admits to make further inquiries because he wishes to remain in ignorance, he is deemed to have knowledge."

That's a good first step in figuring out the answer to a legal question. You read some books. What do they say? The court consults these treatises by these scholars and they say, "Knowledge can include these situations where someone makes themselves deliberately ignorant." Then the court goes on and it gives some reasons for why we might have this rule.

It says, "The substantive justification for the rule is that deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally culpable." It's just one sentence, but there's a lot in there. It's saying that the person who just shields his eyes, what we call this, sometimes, an ostrich, a person who puts their head in the sand to avoid learning some bad thing, says they're equally culpable. They're just as bad as someone who actually has positive knowledge of the thing that they're doing that's illegal.

That's more of like a policy, moral reasoning-type argument that we should try to punish people who are equally culpable the same, but then they have another reason. It says, "The textual justification is that in common understanding one knows facts of which he is less than absolutely certain." That's a statutory interpretation argument. It's short, but you get the idea. Statutes require knowledge. We often say, "I know something."

I can say, "I know the sun will rise in the east tomorrow." I guess I don't have actual conclusive, scientific knowledge of that fact. I just think it's extremely likely. Just as a matter of understanding what the word "knowingly" means, the court says, "Yes, it's really the same thing. If you act with the awareness of the high probability of something, we're going to say that's the same thing as knowledge." That's a textual argument.

Then the court moves on and it starts looking at something called the Model Penal Code. If you've taken criminal law or if you've listened to my series of lectures on criminal law on 7Sage, you'll know the Model Penal Code is a thing that was written by legal scholars that isn't actually the law anywhere, but it's designed to influence the law and hopefully people will take it as a model. It hasn't been enacted in the federal system, but federal courts sometimes read it and they think this is useful. This is another thing that we can find persuasive.

Here, they look at the Model Penal Code. The Model Penal Code has its own definition of knowledge that also includes some situations where someone might be deliberately blinding themselves. Here it says, "When knowledge of the existence of a particular fact is an element of an offense, such knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence unless he actually believes that it does not exist." Then they note in the comments that this is supposed to apply to these willful blindness situations. The court seems to think this is useful.

Then the court is going to look at some precedent. It's going to see a couple decisions from the Supreme Court, which are binding. They're dealing with other statutes where the court is going to look at the Model Penal Code and find it useful and apply that. Then it's also going to look at a number of courts from other courts of appeals. The Second, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits that all say that you can have instructions like the one here, deliberate ignorance instructions for different criminal statutes that involve proof of knowing conduct.

We've got the treatise writers, we've got some justifications, we've got a textual justification, we've got the Model Penal Code, and we've got a lot of courts that seem to be going in this direction. Then the court is going to go on and say, "We don't see a good reason to reach a different result." Then the court is going to do something else. It's going to look at legislative purpose. It says, "If we interpret it the way the defendant wants, really narrowly, that we really need true knowledge rather than deliberate purpose to learn the truth, this would be inconsistent with the larger purpose of the Drug Control Act. This would create this big loophole and we have all these cases where people are engaged in this willful blindness and people would be able to escape liability for criminal punishment and that seems troubling. That seems bad." The court seems to think that would be a dangerous result. Then it responds to a counterargument, says, "It is no answer to say that in such cases, the fact finder may infer a positive knowledge."

Like in this case, the court could have concluded that, despite Jewell's testimony that he didn't really 100% know what was in the car, he was lying and he did know, but the court says, "In that situation, you're only going to be convicting defendants if the fact finder either just ignores the law or concludes that the witness is lying. It's not really enough of a solution to this problem of people who are keeping themselves deliberately ignorant in order to find this loophole in the drug laws."

Then the court notes at the end, basically says, "This isn't really that different from actual knowledge. It's just a little bit less than that. Only so much as to capture the people that are really trying to engage in criminal conduct." The court has looked at all of these sources, brought in all these tools of reasoning, and the court is going to reach this conclusion that for the criminal statutes, in this case, that require knowledge, this kind of conscious purpose requirement is going to be sufficient. If the defendant has a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth, that's going to be sufficient to satisfy the knowledge requirement.

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