44 Am. U. L. Rev. 127 (1994-1995)
Absurdity and the Limits of Literalism: Defining the Absurd Result Principle in Statutory Interpretation

handle is hein.journals/aulr44 and id is 146 raw text is: ABSURDITY AND THE LIMITS OF
LITERALISM: DEFINING THE ABSURD
RESULT PRINCIPLE IN STATUTORY
INTERPRETATION*
VERONICA M. DOUGHERTY**
[I] t is a venerable principle that a law will not be interpreted to
produce absurd results. The common sense of man approves the
judgment mentioned by Puffendorf, that the Bolognian law which
enacted 'that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished
with the utmost severity,' did not extend to the surgeon who
opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street in a fit.
The same common sense accepts the ruling, cited by Plowden, that
the statute of 1st Edward II, which enacts that a prisoner who
breaks prison shall be guilty of felony, does not extend to a
prisoner who breaks out when the prison is on fire-'for he is not
to be hanged because he would not stay to be burnt.'
[T]he absurdity clause has a relative and variable content which
threatens the entire foundation of literal theory.'
INTRODUCTION
The absurd result principle in statutory interpretation provides an
exception to the rule that a statute should be interpreted according
* © 1994 Veronica M. Dougherty.
** Assistant Director, Law and Public Policy Program, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law,
Cleveland State University. J.D. 1987, Harvard Law School; M.P.P. 1987, Kennedy School of
Government, Harvard University; B.A. 1977, Bethany College.
I wish to thank Paula Dubberly, David F. Forte, and Timothy M. Hurley for helpful comments
on prior drafts, and Edward K. Bilich for the conversation that originally piqued my interest in
this topic.
1. KMart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281,325 (1988) (Scalia,J., concurring in part and
dissenting in part) (quoting United States v. Kirby, 74 U.S. 482, 487 (1868)).
2. E. Russell Hopkins, The Literal Canon and the Golden Rule, 15 CAN. B. REv. 689, 695
(1937).

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