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The Connecticut Supreme Court has expressly rejected the “plain meaning rule” of statutory construction in State v. Courchesne, a decision to be released Tuesday that redefines the way judges analyze the work of lawmakers. “It’s a case of giant importance,” said appellate expert Wesley W. Horton. “Basically all the briefs pending before the court on statutory construction can be thrown in the wastebasket.” No other state, he said, except perhaps Alaska, has ruled that judges can look beyond the plain meaning of a statute to explore whether a literal reading would present an absurd result, and adjust accordingly. “It puts Connecticut really out there in the limelight,” said Horton, a court historian and top appellate advocate. On the surface, the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision State v. Courchesne is about the death penalty. It decided that knife murderer Robert Courchesne can face execution for the 1988 killing of Demetris Roberts and her baby, when only the mother’s death was “especially cruel.” The baby, delivered by Caesarean section, lived 42 days. Courchesne was convicted for the murder of “two or more people.” His defense lawyers argued that a literal reading of the death penalty law requires both murders to be “especially cruel.” But a five-justice majority concluded that only one of the murders need fit the “especially cruel” standard to trigger death penalty eligibility. The death penalty subject matter, however, is just the stage for a duel between the old “plain meaning” doctrine and a more in-depth approach to statutory interpretation. Under the plain meaning doctrine, only if a statute is ambiguous on its face can the court fire up its intellectual engines, examining legislative history, past cases and the inter-relationship of statutes to arrive at the true meaning. Traditionally, if the language appears clear on the surface, the court must not probe further. ABSURDITY CLAUSE In Courchesne, author David M. Borden rephrases the rule with a new clause: “If the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, and if the result yielded by that plain and unambiguous meaning is not absurd or unworkable, the court must not interpret the language (i.e., there is no room for construction)…” Borden was joined by Richard N. Palmer and Christine S. Vertefeuille. Joette Katz and Flemming L. Norcott Jr. filed concurring opinions, dissenting in part to reiterate their opposition to the death penalty as unconstitutional. A robust and detailed dissent was entered by Peter T. Zarella, joined by Chief Justice William J. Sullivan. It calls the majority ruling “nothing short of breathtaking.” Zarella opposed abandonment of the plain meaning rule and the rule of “lenity,” or leniency, which would have precluded a death sentence. The majority admits from the start that, if the statute were applied as read, “as a purely linguistic matter,” the defense would probably win. But since the legislature clearly allows the death penalty for the especially cruel killing of one person, Borden reasoned, there is no logical way lawmakers could have intended that an “especially cruel” murderer could be immunized from death by humanely killing one or more additional people. Borden noted that the plain meaning rule is rife with internal logical flaws. It clashes with the rule that lawmakers “do not intend to promulgate statutes or rules that lead to absurd consequences or bizarre results.” That policy requires courts to rule out a “plain meaning” that makes no sense, when taken out of context. The majority sets forth a road map for statutory interpretation that makes Courchesne a milestone, restating how the high court functions. Statutory interpretation is a “reasoned search for the intention of the legislature [that] requires us to consider all relevant sources of the meaning of the language at issue, without having to cross any threshold or thresholds of ambiguity. Thus we do not follow the plain meaning rule.” WISE COURSE? There is a lively interchange between the dissent and the majority. Zarella and Sullivan brand the new method of statutory interpretation “radical” and “misguided,” and likely to lead to unconstrained second-guessing of the lawmakers’ intentions by judges. Borden and the majority counter that, “We think that legislation is inherently purposive and that, therefore, it is not only appropriate but necessary to consider the purpose or purposes of legislation in order to determine its meaning.” He cites the case of Conway v. Wilton, in which Katz, by exploring the model act and historic sources, got the court to reverse a “plain meaning” decision that exempted towns from tort liability, under a statute designed to encourage private rural landowners to allow non-commercial recreational access. Originally, the court held that, since towns were “landowners,” they should not be liable for injuries caused by hazardous conditions in their parks. The dissent argued that the approach of allowing the court to look far and wide for a statute’s meaning could lead to courts substituting their ideas of wise policy for that of the legislature. But “if a court is determined to be intellectually dishonest,” Borden wrote, it can be so. But by looking at more, rather than less, background material, “we think that the risk of intellectual dishonesty in performing that task will be minimized,” he concluded.

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