Case Upon the Statute for Distribution
Case Upon the Statute for Distribution, Wythe 302 (1796), is a discourse by Wythe on how to interpret a statute about the distribution of a dead person's property. It looks at some canons of statutory interpretation that are still in use today. Wythe also takes the opportunity to reiterate his disregard for English caselaw as precedent in the United States.
If the High Court of Chancery was currently hearing a dispute that led to this decision, Wythe did not tell the reader what it was. Wythe merely noted that he "had occasion lately to consider the question" about interpreting a 1705 Virginia statute. The statute was no longer in force, but Wythe said it might still be worth considering, as there were still pending and potentially yet-to-be-begun cases in which the deceased died while the 1705 statute was still in force. It is unclear why Wythe calls this a "case", except perhaps to make it fit in as a part of his case reports. This item was also published as a separate pamphlet. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be an essay, not a reported decision.
Wythe began the discussion by citing the language of an English statute from 1670-1671 on how to distribute the estate of a person who died intestate (without leaving a will). Wythe noted that the parts of the 1670-71 English statute and the 1705 Virginia statute that would be relevant for his discussion had effectively the same language. Presumably, that is one reason chose the 1705 Act as the starting point for his essay, supposing that many Virginia judges would be inclined to use English caselaw interpreting the 1670-71 statute as a tool to interpret the similarly-worded 1705 Virginia act.
The focus of Wythe's ire in this essay lay with how English courts interpreted a particular section of the 1670-71 statute. This part of the statute says that if a person dies intestate without children, one half of the estate goes to the deceased's wife, with the other half to be divided among all the closest-degree next of kin and their legal representatives. The statute also stated that "there be no representations admitted among collaterals (blood relatives not a direct ancestor or descendant of the deceased, like an uncle), after brothers and sisters children." Wythe said that English courts interpreted that phrase to mean that only the deceased's siblings can have their children succeed to the rights to their shares. Brothers and sisters could inherit part of the deceased's estate, and if the brother or sister was already dead, their children would succeed to the inheritance. A deceased's uncle or aunt could inherit, but if that uncle or aunt was already dead, then that uncle's or aunt's children could not succeed to the inheritance.
Wythe chose former [English Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas North]'s argument in Carter v. Crawley to analyze because he found it the most thorough explanation of this English rule.
One of Wythe's primary objections to Carter v. Crawley was that Lord North conflated two issues. The important question, Wythe said, was not the degree of relative who were allowed to have their children succeed to their rights, but what degree of relative was allowed to succeed to the rights of those collateral kin. Wythe added that there are numerous relative terms in the statute that do not use the deceased as their reference point - there are several mentions of "representatives of them" that refer to the deceased's children, not the deceased.
Another of Lord North's rationales for his interpretation was that some of the children of the siblings of collateral kin would have no blood relation to the deceased at all, e.g., if they were stepchildren. Since such children would not be able to directly inherit any of the deceased's estate, why should their parents' rights to inherit pass down to them? Lord North added that to interpret the statute otherwise could lead to absurd results - he gave the example of next of kin who are the intestate person's nephews via several deceased brothers. In Lord North's hypothetical, not all the brothers are related to each other by blood. Lord North continued by saying that the children of those who had brothers who survived the intestate person, while the children of those who did not have any surviving brothers would get nothing. Lord North said this would be an absurd result, since the important factor in inheriting should be the person's relation is to the person who died intestate, not their relation to the collateral kin.
Wythe countered that it was not unusual for a representative of collateral kin to be unrelated to the deceased, since the logical assumption is that if that collateral kin were alive when they inherited their part of the deceased's estate, they would in turn will that to their children, regardless of whether the collateral kin's children were related to the deceased. Wythe cited to the King's Bench case Smith v. Tracy to support his argument that even children who are not related to the deceased by blood can act as legal representatives who can assume collateral kin's inheritance from the deceased. Wythe said that Lord North erroneously conflated Parliament's intent to limit who could represent collateral kin and succeed to their inheritance right (no further away than the children of the collateral kin's brothers and sisters) with their intent to define who had the right to inherit from the deceased (all the kin who are of the same, closest degree of relation).
Lord North's argued that nephews and nieces would normally be close to the person who died and so the deceased would have had more affection for them than for collateral kin. In addition, there might be many more relatives at a remote degree of relation than at the niece or nephew level. Allowing a person's interest in the inheritance to pass to their children at such a remote degree of relation might result in splitting the inheritance into such tiny slices that each of the individual shares of the inheritance would be practically nonexistent. Wythe found Lord North's affection rationale baseless. Wythe pointed out that the way Lord North interpreted the statute, even very distant kin could inherit, so long as they were lineal descendants. Wythe also noted that not all people share the same view of an uncle's affection, citing part of Horace's Odes and Satires In addition, Wythe stated that just because the end result might be numerous inheritors getting an infinitesimal sliver of the inheritance does not mean that the inheritors should not get that slice if that is what the statute says. It might be an argument for why the statute should not been written that way, but the court has to take the statute they were given, not the one they think Parliament should have given them.
In Carter v. Crawley, Lord North stated that a clearly-written statute would have force in all the cases it reaches, but if a statute can be read in more than one way, it is more natural to use the clear meaning than the one with absurd consequences. Wythe found Lord North's invocation of the plain-meaning rule disingenuous - Lord North said that statute was written clearly, but at the same time stated that the statute had several possible interpretations. Additionally, Wythe said that even though his "clear" interpretation of the statute differs from Lord North's, it still avoids an absurd result. Wythe also declared that Lord North's "plain meaning" of the statute was actually judicial interpretation on Lord North's part. Wythe also touched upon Lord North's comment that any other interpretation of the statute would require another act of Parliament to settle the absurdities that would result. Lord North and his successors misinterpreted a statute with a clear meaning such as this one, Wythe said, so what good would it serve Parliament to pass another act?
Wythe mocked Lord North's idea that it was symmetrical, and thus the plain meaning, for the term "after brothers and sisters children" to use the same reference point throughout the statute, whether referring to who can legally represent a deceased heir's interest or who can inherit in the first place. Wythe borrowed a phrase from Horace's Ars Poetica, calling such symmetry the same as "(A) painter (taking) a fancy to join a horse's neck to a human head."
Lord North believed that a paragraph in the act ordering ordinaries and ecclesiastical judges to administer and account for the distribution of the inheritance to legal representatives "according to the laws in such cases" meant that the act incorporated ecclesiastical laws in its definition of who could become a legal representative. Ecclesiastical courts' practice at the time was to exclude representation of collateral kin after nephews and nieces. Wythe pointed out, though, that the same paragraph also tells ordinaries and ecclesiastical judges to distribute the estate according to "the rules and limitation hereafter set down".
Wythe proceeded to analyze the statute's language on who would succeed to the estate in the event the deceased had children, then compared it to the statute's language on who succeeded to the estate if there were no children. Wythe concluded that his interpretation of the language designating a successor if there were no children is valid, whether or not it contains the phrase "provided that there be no representations admitted among collaterals after brothers and sisters children". To hold to Lord North's interpretation would make the phrase "in equal degree" redundant in the statute. The next of kindred are already assumed to be related by an equal degree to the deceased; including the phrase "in equal degree" is only necessary under Wythe's interpretation of the statute, because it indicates that the rule about allowing only brothers' and sisters' children to succeed as legal representatives to a next of kin's right of inheritance is an exception to the general rule.
Lord North's arguments supporting his interpretation of the statute were, according to Wythe, would stand up to review as poorly as the "tattered prodigals with which Falstaff was ashamed to March through Coventry" in Shakespeare's Henry IV. The arguments were too strict; here, Wythe cited the canon that statutes using general language that does not amend criminal law can apply to cases within the statute's scope, even though the statute's language does not specifically address those situations. Wythe said that Lord North made an erroneous deduction, and cited Francis Bacon's Seventeenth Aphorism, which stated that errors can occur while inducing axioms or general principles from specific instances, but that there is a greater chance for error when deducing axioms and specific propositions from syllogisms. Lord North's idea that only the deceased's brothers and sisters could have their children succeed to their inheritance right, Wythe implied, was such an erroneous inference.
Wythe added Carter v. Crawley to his rogues gallery of poor English caselaw precedent, a collection so large that Wythe quoted Virgil's Aeneid and said that he could not list them all if he had "a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,/a voice of iron".
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 2d ed. 1852), 302.
- Wythe does not cite the statute, but he is presumably referring to Chapter 33 of the October 1705 (4th Anne) Acts of Assembly. 3 Hening 371 (1705).
- George Wythe, Case upon the Statute for Distribution, (Richmond: Printed by Thomas Nicolson, 1796).
- 22 & 23 Car. II, c. 10 (Eng.). Interestingly, Wythe's quotation of the act reads differently from the originally-published statute language as it appears in the publication The Statutes of the Realm. The changes seem to be mostly stylistic, maybe intended to change the original act's 17th-century writing style to a style more in tune with Wythe's times. It could be that Wythe got the text of the act from a contemporary publication that updated the act's language, or Wythe updated the language himself - Wythe does not say. At any rate, the part of the statute that Wythe is discussing seems to be the same in both versions except for a couple of spelling variations (e.g., "noe" versus "no") and some changes in punctuation that do not appear to affect the meaning.
- 83 Eng. Rep. 259, Raym. Sir T. 496 (1681).
- An illustration: Mr. A dies, leaving Brother B and Uncle U. Lord North's interpretation of the statute would only allow B's children to succeed to his rights to a portion of A's estate. Wythe argued that what this part of the statute really said was that when it comes to U's part of A's estate, no one can succeed to U's rights who is a more distant relation than the children of U's brothers and sisters.
- 86 Eng. Rep. 1027, 2 Mod. 204 (1677-78). In this case, the judge equally distributed the estate among the deceased's half- and whole siblings.
- Wythe adds that this by necessity includes the collateral kin's brothers and sisters, adding a reference to John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Locke's distinction in Book IV, Ch. XVII, §§ 19-22 between Argumentum ad justicium (arguing using proof drawn from knowledge) and Argumentum ad verecundiam (using a person's reputation to support an argument). Essentially, Wythe throws this in as an aside to say "for those of you who will not take my word for it and must see every step of my logic, here's this step."
- metuentes patruae linguae. XII Ode, III Lib. (referring to "How unhappy are the maidens who. . .must tremble all the day/At an uncle, and the scourging of his tongue!"
- ne sis patruus mihi ("Be not severe against me"). Sat. III, Lib. II, v. 88. In this satire, the line is from Staberius's will. Throughout the satire, Staberius justified spending his riches now rather than leaving them for his descendants.
- "Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam/Jungere si velit". Horace, Ars Poetica, lines 1-2.
- in legibus et statutis brevioris style, extensio facienda est liberius; at in illis, quae sunt enumerativa casuum particularium, cautius. ("There is the same degree of licentiousness and error in forming axioms, as in abstracting notions: and that in the first principles, which depend on common induction. Still more is this the case in axioms and inferior propositions derived from syllogisms.") Francis Bacon, Of the Advancement and Proficiencie of Learning" (Oxford: Printed by Leon. Lichfield for Rob. Young & Ed. Forrest, 1640), lib. VIII, ch. III, aphor. 17.
- "non, mihi si linguae centum sint oraque centum,/ferrea vox. . ./omnia. . .percurrere nomina possim." Virgil, Aeneid, lines 625-627.