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Literal Interpretation and “Absurd”
Results: Commonwealth v. Wallace and
“Trial on the Merits”
Francis D. Doucette
Familiar to lawyers and laypersons alike, the phrase “trial on the merits”1 has a rock-solid, reassuring ring to it. Regardless of the nature of the
grievance or controversy, those four words hold out hope and the promise
of legal redress, suggesting fairness, finality, a meaningful opportunity to
be heard. Moreover, when the Legislature sees fit to insert those powerful
and evocative words in a statute, it is reasonable to assume that the valuable legal rights embodied are inviolable, beyond tampering or attack. But
in the recent case of Commonwealth v. Wallace2 the Supreme Judicial
Court of Massachusetts not only dashed those assumptions but abandoned
a great many of its own hallowed principles along the way. Sadly, it is a
decision which illustrates the lengths to which a court will go—including
jettisoning the English language—in order to arrive at a socially acceptable result.
The focus of the case is the interpretation of statutory language, and
“[s]tatutory interpretation is a pure question of law.” 3 The underlying
facts, however, are uncomplicated and easy to recite. In 1998 the defendant was charged in Quincy District Court 4 with violating a “permanent”
restraining order sought and obtained by the Quincy Housing Authority in
Norfolk Superior Court pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter
121B, section 32F. The order5 prohibited the defendant (and five other
 B.A., University of Massachusetts, 1970; M.A., Harvard University, 1972;
Ph.D., Harvard University, 1974; J.D., Northeastern University School of Law, 1981.
Francis D. Doucette is a member of the Massachusetts and Virginia bars and has
been in private practice since 1982. He has been a part-time clinical supervisor at
Suffolk University Law School since 1990.
1. Defined in B LACK 'S LAW D ICTIONARY (7th ed. 1999) as "[a] trial on the substantive issues of a case, as opposed to a motion hearing or interlocutory ma tter."
2. 730 N.E.2d 275 (Mass. 2000).
3. Commonwealth v. Cintolo, 613 N.E.2d 509, 510 (Mass. 1993).
4. Commonwealth v. Wallace, No. 9856-CR-006424.
5. Norfolk Superior Court Civil Action No. 96-01692, Judgment Dated April
17, 1997, Judith A. Cowin, J.
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named individuals) “from entering or remaining within one thousand
(1000) feet”6 of specified property of the Quincy Housing Authority.
The last sentence of the second paragraph of Chapter 121B, section
32F, states in forceful, seemingly unambiguous terms that “[n]o permanent [restraining] order shall be granted except as a final judgment after a
trial on the merits.”7 And any order so issued, whether temporary or permanent, is required by the first paragraph of the same statute to “contain
the following statement: VIOLATION OF THIS ORDER IS A
CRIMINAL OFFENSE” (capitals in original). 8 Thus there is no question
that Chapter 121B, section 32F, is a penal statute; the maximum penalties
are a fine of up to $3,500 and imprisonment for up to two years in the
house of correction, or both.
It was uncontroverted that the defendant never had a trial on the merits
because he defaulted in Superior Court; even the final judgment prominently9 acknowledged that fact. Indeed, at the time of the civil trial the
defendant was incarcerated. Relying on this background and the plain
wording of the statute, the defendant's attorney filed a motion and a memorandum10 seeking dismissal of the complaint. The primary contention
was that the “permanent” restraining order issued was a legal nullity since
no trial on the merits had ever taken place, in contradiction of the statutory
mandate. Accordingly, the Commonwealth could not prevail in a criminal
trial because it could not establish a knowing 11 violation of a valid order.
Secondarily, the defendant exhorted the court to respect the legislative
intent in insisting on a trial on the merits and to abide by the maxim that
criminal statutes must be strictly construed.
On these (or some other) grounds the district court judge, of course,
could have dismissed the complaint sua sponte. 12 But the Commonwealth,
assisted by counsel for the Quincy Housing Authority, opposed the motion
to dismiss, and, after a hearing, the judge denied it. Conceding, however,
that “these are questions of law which are important and where the law is
in doubt,”13 the judge, pursuant to Rule 34, reported two questions of law 14
6. Id.
7. M ASS. GEN. LAWS ch. 121B § 32F (2001).
8. Id.
9. See Norfolk Superior Court Civil Action No. 96-01692, Judgment Dated
April 17, 1997, Judith A. Cowin, J.
10. See Commonwealth v. Wallace, No. 9856-CR-006424.
11. The defendant, however, was served in hand with a copy of the restraining
order. See Commonwealth v. Wallace, 730 N.E.2d 275, 277 (Mass. 2000).
12. “We take this occasion to note that a judge has inherent authority to dismiss
an indictment sua sponte. This is a necessary corollary of the judge's authority to process criminal cases.” Commonwealth v. Jenkins, 727 N.E.2d 1172, 1174 -75 (Mass.
13. Report pursuant to M.R.C.P. 34 of Mark S. Coven, J., Docket No. 9856 -CR-
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to the appeals court.
The Supreme Judicial Court then transferred the case on its own initiative, albeit skewering the action as procedurally defective on several
fronts. The defendant, the court first maintained, should not be allowed to
challenge the validity of the permanent restraining order in the motion to
dismiss the criminal case. Such a challenge, in the court's view, amounted
to an impermissible “collateral attack,”15 an approach disfavored and rejected by the court in an appeal of a criminal contempt case just the year
before.16 The court went on to explain that other options and remedies 17
were available to the defendant, had he wished to contest the issuance of
the restraining order; none of which the defendant pursued.
Additionally, the court even questioned the propriety 18 of the district
court judge reporting the questions of law to the appeals court, intimating
that the matter was not appropriate for interlocutory appeal. Indeed, ultimately the court ruled that “[t]he report is discharged as not being properly before us.”19 All of this caviling fairly begs the question why the court
ever bothered to accept such a supposedly error-riddled case for review in
the first place. Nonetheless, once having disinfected the air of these procedural irregularities, the court proceeded swiftly to an analysis of the
defendant's main contention, agreeing with the district court judge that
“the issues raised by the reported questions are important.”20
The analysis is abbreviated, occupying barely more than a page, and is
more remarkable for what it leaves out than for what it includes. Throughout, the court seems uneasy or reluctant even to acknowledge that it is
dealing with a criminal case. For example, the concept of liberty and the
potential loss of that liberty never figure in the discussion. The court
quotes or cites a total of six cases in the analysis, five of which are civil
and all from Massachusetts, and never hints that special concerns are sup-
14. The two questions were: "(1) Can the Superior Court, pursuant to
M.G.L.c.121B, sec.32A et seq., grant a permanent injuction on behalf of a public hou sing authority only after a trial on the merits? (2) Must the District Court dismiss a
criminal complaint for a violation of a permanent injunction entered pursuant to
M.G.L.c.121B, sec.32F where that injunction entered after the default of the defendant
and not after a trial on the merits?" Wallace, 730 N.E.2d at 276-77.
15. Id. at 277.
16. See Commonwealth v. Dodge, 705 N.E.2d 612 (Mass. 1999).
17. See Wallace, 705 N.E.2d at 277.
18. See id. at 276 n.1.
19. Id. at 278.
20. Id. at 276-77.
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posed to apply in the interpretation of a criminal statute. Obviously, the
court knows better, as it has admitted elsewhere in analogous circumstances: “[t]he considerations underlying the proper application of a criminal statute are different.”21
There is no mention in the analysis whatever of the celebrated rule that
“[c]riminal statutes are to be construed strictly against the Commonwealth
and in favor of the defendant, under the premise that '[n]o one may be
required at peril of life, liberty or property to speculate as to the meaning
of penal statutes.”22 No idle academic exercise, this rule—sometimes referred to as the rule of lenity—has its origins in the common law23 and can
be traced to the beginnings of the Republic.24 The historical basis of the
rule is generally assumed to be the cruel and barbarous punishments of
earlier ages, which enlightened judges and courts sought to circumvent by
fashioning and applying the practice of strict construction. 25
To be sure, there is authority to the effect that the rule of strict construction, as an aid in interpretation, is limited to statutory language which admits of ambiguity. “There is no need of construction to ascertain the
meaning of a statute where the language is clear and unambiguous and the
intention of the law-making power is manifestly apparent therefrom.” 26 A
1984 decision27 of the United States Supreme Court reflects this sentiment: “The rule of lenity is of course a well-recognized principle of statutory construction . . . but the critical language of [18 U.S.C.S. § 1001] is
not sufficiently ambiguous, in our view, to permit the rule to be controlling here.”28
But that narrow position, limiting the rule of strict construction to cases
clouded by ambiguous statutory language, is far from universally held.
Almost two centuries ago, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that
“[t]he rule that penal laws are to be construed strictly, is perhaps not much
21. Commonwealth v. Chapman, 744 N.E.2d 14, 17 (Mass. 2001).
22. Commonwealth v. McLaughlin, 726 N.E.2d 959, 966 (Mass. 2000) (cit ations omitted).
23. "It is required at common law that a criminal statute be strictly construed,
and that any doubt be resolved in favor of the defendant." WHARTON 'S CRIMINAL LAW
(15th ed. 1993), § 12 and cases cited. See also P AUL H. R OBINSON , CRIMINAL LAW
DEFENSES (1984), § 35(a)(2) n.6 (citing Livingston Hall, Strict or Liberal Construction of Penal Statutes, 48 HARV . L. REV. 748, 750-51 (1935): "The rule of strict construction was developed in England before the 19th Century, when courts sought to
ameliorate the harsh penalties imposed for many offenses by narrowing the scope of a
statute through strict construction.").
24. See United States v. Wiltberger, 18 U.S. 76 (1820).
25. See supra note 23 and accompanying text.
26. People v. Lund, 46 N.E.2d 929 (Ill. 1943).
27. See United States v. Rogers, 466 U.S. 475 (1984).
28. Id. at 484.
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less old than construction itself.” 29 A leading authority on Massachusetts
criminal law asserts succinctly and without qualification that “a criminal
statute must be construed strictly. The court may not enlarge a criminal
statute by implication.”30 To illustrate, relying on that general principle,
and making no finding or argument regarding ambiguity, the court in
Commonwealth v. Cintolo31 affirmed the allowance of a motion to dismiss
by ruling, as a matter of law, that the defendant corporate president “was
not the 'person having employees,' within the language of Massachusetts
General Laws Chapter 149, section 150C.” 32 In Commonwealth v.
Boone,33 which dealt with the definition of “escape” in Massachusetts
General Laws Chapter 268, section 16, the court engaged in no discussion
of ambiguity but firmly declined to enlarge upon the statute under review:
“To create such a fiction on the language of s[ection] 16 alone runs contrary to the usual tenet of strict construction of a criminal statute.”34
Of course, regardless of whether ambiguity is a factor, there are limits
to the rule of strict construction. For example, in Commonwealth v. Roucoulet,35 the defendant was arrested in a motor vehicle within 1000 feet of
a school zone in possession of a “large quantity of cocaine, cutting
agents,”36 baggies, and the like. He elected to plead guilty to the indictment which charged him with trafficking in cocaine, but disputed, both at
a jury-waived trial and on appeal, the separate indictment which charged
him with violation of the school zone statute. Proof was lacking, the defendant contended, that he had any intention to distribute these drugs inside the school zone; on the contrary, even the Commonwealth's evidence
established convincingly that the drugs were destined to be delivered to an
undercover police officer then waiting at a co-defendant's home outside
the prohibited 1000 foot area. The court, however, refused to read into the
statute any requirement that there must be proof of an intent to distribute
within the school zone. “The maxim that criminal statutes are to be strictly
construed,” Justice Greaney wrote, “does not mean that an available and
sensible interpretation is to be rejected in favor of a fanciful or perverse
one.”37 The more general rule, as stated in a United States Supreme Court
decision38 from 1976, is that “[a] criminal statute . . . is to be strictly con-
29. Wiltberger, 18 U.S. at 95.
(3d ed. 2001).
31. 613 N.E.2d 509 (Mass. 1993).
32. Id. at 359.
33. 477 N.E.2d 1026 (Mass. 1985).
34. Id. at 1029.
35. 601 N.E.2d 470 (Mass. 1992).
36. Id. at 471.
37. Id. at 473.
38. Barrett v. United States, 423 U.S. 212 (1976).
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strued, but it is ‘not to be construed so strictly as to defeat the obvious
intention of the legislature.’”39
In Wallace, however, the court refrains from ever declaring, at least
explicitly, whether it finds ambiguous the phrase “trial on the merits” in
Chapter 121B, section 32F. The accepted wisdom is that “[a] term is ambiguous only if it is susceptible of more than one meaning and reasonably
intelligent persons would differ as to which meaning is the proper one.”40
Certainly, when inclined, the court knows how to say that some word or
combination of words is “not ambiguous” 41 or that the words of a statute
“are plain.”42
Whether this omission in Wallace is inadvertent or calculated, it obviously allows the court the luxury to bypass the rule of strict construction
and deny the defendant the deferential treatment to which he would otherwise be entitled. “If the statutory language ‘can plausibly be found to be
ambiguous,’ the rule of lenity requires the defendant to be given ‘the benefit of the ambiguity.’”43 Similarly, in the absence of an explicit finding of
ambiguity, “there is no occasion to examine legislative history,” 44 and no
justification to “look to extrinsic circumstances to determine the intent of
the Legislature as to [the statute's] meaning.” 45
The polar opposite of ambiguous language is clear or plain language. “It
is a well-established canon of construction that, where the statutory language is clear, the courts must impart to the language its plain and ordinary meaning.”46 As it should be, “the statutory language itself is the principal source of insight into the legislative purpose.” 47 It would be ludicrous and futile to suggest that the Legislature was not familiar with the
39. Id. at 218 (quoting American Fur Co. v. United States, 2 Pet. 358, 367, 7 L.
Ed. 450 (1829) and citing Huddleston v. U.S., 415 U.S. 814, 831 (1974)).
40. County of Barnstable v. American Fin. Corp., 744 N.E.2d 1107, 1109
(Mass. App. Ct. 2001).
41. Roucoulet, 601 N.E.2d at 473.
42. Daluz v. Dept. of Corr., 746 N.E.2d 501, 508 (Mass. 2001) (stating "[t]he
words of G. L. c.30, s.58, are plain.").
43. Commonwealth v. Carrion, 725 N.E.2d 196, 198 (Mass. 2000) (quoting
Roucoulet, 601 N.E.2d at 473).
44. Roucoulet, 601 N.E.2d at 472 n.7.
45. EMC Corp. v. Comm’r of Revenue, 744 N.E.2d 55, 57 (Mass. 2001).
46. Commonwealth v. One 1987 Mercury Cougar Auto., 600 N.E.2d 571, 573
(Mass. 1992). See also Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485 (1917) (stating
"[w]here the language is plain and admits of no more than one meaning, the duty of
interpretation does not arise, and the rules which are to aid doubtful meanings need no
47. Hoffman v. Howmedica, Inc., 364 N.E.2d 1215, 1218 (Mass. 1977).
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legal meaning and significance of “trial on the merits” when it drafted
section 32F of Chapter 121B. “It is to be presumed . . . that the legislature
is acquainted with the law, that it has knowledge of the state of the law on
subjects on which it legislates . . . .”48 Beyond doubt, the phrase “trial on
the merits” in section 32F of Chapter 121B is a laudable example of the
deliberate use of clear, plain language. Only a sophist or contrarian would
contend otherwise. But the court in Wallace declines to give those four
words either praise or meaning.
Instead, the court, in its abbreviated analysis, defeats the defendant's
claim by selecting and championing one dubious, obscure canon of statutory construction, at the expense of all other canons. It borrows and quotes
this canon from a 1979 civil case: 49 “[a] literal construction of statutory
language will not be adopted when such a construction will lead to an absurd and unreasonable conclusion . . . .” 50 The subject matter of the 1979
civil case—a wrangling over the interpretation of the phrase “any town” in
a dispute between two towns concerning the reimbursement of veterans'
benefits—obviously has nothing to do with criminal jurisprudence and the
potential loss of liberty at stake in the instant case.
Nonetheless, with that doctrine as its sole guide, the court acknowledges but disagrees with the defendant's argument that the phrase “trial on the
merits” in Massachusetts General Laws chapter 121B, section 32F, should
be given a literal interpretation. “[S]uch an interpretation,” the court declares flatly, “would lead to an absurd result.” 51 What would that absurd
result be? “It would mean,” the court endeavors to explain, “that no permanent injunction could ever issue against an individual who defaulted in
a civil action where a restraining order was sought . . . .” 52
Even if that consequence is conceded, is that not a matter for the Legislature to address, by an appropriate amendment to Chapter 121B, section
32F? As the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has stated in various
forms when confronted with similar problems before, “[t]he solution to
the dilemma . . . is in the hands of the Legislature.” 53 But ignoring for the
moment the avenue of legislative correction of a possibly flawed statute, is
the court being honest when it depicts the present state of affairs in Wal-
48. Commonwealth v. Boarman, 610 S.W.2d 922, 924 (Ky. App. 1981). See
also Commonwealth v. Smith, 710 N.E.2d 1003, 1005 (Mass. App. Ct. 1999) aff’d, 728
N.E.2d 272 (Mass. 2000) (stating "[f]urther, '[t]he Legislature must be assumed to
know the preexisting law and the decisions of [the Supreme Judicial C]ourt.'").
49. See Town of Lexington v. Town of Bedford, 393 N.E.2d 321 (Mass. 1979).
A more recent expression of this rule may be found in Johnson Lumber v. Woodscape
Homes, Inc., 746 N.E.2d 533, 536 (Mass. App. Ct. 2001) (citing various authorities ).
50. Town of Lexington, 393 N.E.2d at 327.
51. Wallace, 730 N.E.2d at 278.
52. Id.
53. Dodge, 705 N.E.2d at 616.
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lace as an absurd result? Or, rather, is it a result the court simply does not
like and refuses to let stand? Is the decision based on accepted, wellsettled principles of constitutional criminal law? Or, rather, is it the product of political correctness and social engineering? No fewer than four
public housing authorities filed amicus briefs in the case. 54 Of course,
“[t]he longstanding rule is that an amicus curiae is not a party to the case .
. . .”55
The court adopts an alarmist tone and hastens to point out that one of
the principal purposes of the statute is “to allow a housing authority to
create a safe public housing environment, by protecting tenants from the
unlawful actions of nontenants.”56 Such a goal is clearly commendable,
but has it been thwarted or made impossible by the statutory requirement
of a trial on the merits prior to the issuance of a permanent restraining
order? The court implies as much but provides no data whatsoever in support. Indeed, the opinion is utterly devoid of statistics, crime reports, or
accounts of frustrated efforts by public housing authorities to obtain permanent restraining orders to curb incidents of violence or disorders. Rather, without any such data and without apology, the court elevates public
policy concerns over the rights of the defendant, paying scant attention to
any other concerns. In the process, the court in essence treats “trial on the
merits” as surplusage and all but deletes the phrase from Chapter 121B,
section 32F.
Oddly, the court never defines the operative label “absurd,” apparently
viewing the word as self-defining.57 Nor does the court ever define “trial
on the merits” or discuss the legal history or etymology of the phrase.
While “not dispositive,” “[d]ictionary definitions are helpful . . . in statutory interpretation cases.”58 Equally disturbing, the court fails to cite a
single authority, from any jurisdiction, where this particular canon of statutory construction was resorted to, dispositively or otherwise, in a criminal case.59
There are, moreover, no treatises on statutory construction mentioned or
cited in Wallace. The pre-eminent work on the subject informs us that
54. Wallace, 730 N.E.2d at 276 n.2.
55. In re Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc., 746 N.E.2d 513, 518 (Mass. 2001).
56. Wallace, 730 N.E.2d at 278.
57. “Absurd” is defined as "[o]ut of harmony with reason or propriety; inco ngruous, unreasonable, illogical." OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 43 (2d 1989).
58. Commonwealth v. Smith, 710 N.E.2d 1003, 1005 n.4 (Mass. App. Ct.
1999), further appellate review granted, 714 N.E.2d 825 (Mass. 1999), aff’d 728
N.E.2d 272 (Mass. 2000).
59. The single criminal case cited in the analysis, Commonwealth v. Williams,
691 N.E.2d 553 (Mass. 1998), is inapposite, having nothing to do with claims of a bsurd results but dealing rather with the proper interpretation of the juvenile transfer
statute, the former Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119, section 61.
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“there is authority for applying the plain meaning rule even though it produces a harsh or unjust result or a mistaken policy as long as the result is
not absurd.”60 Little further elucidation is provided, however, and the
overwhelming majority of cases cited in support of that general proposition are civil.
But even if it is agreed that the principle applies equally to criminal
cases, where does a court draw the line between “mistaken policy” and
“absurd results?” What is the difference between the two? Does a result
become absurd simply because a court says so? Why is the situation in
Wallace an absurd result rather than an accepted statutory “anomaly?” 61
What, finally, is absurd about a defendant in a criminal case, facing a potential loss of liberty of two years if convicted, asking that the clear, plain
language of a statute be adhered to? Isn't this a far more reasonable request than the case of a defendant urging, to quote Justice Greaney, a
“fanciful or perverse”62 interpretation of a statute?
Admittedly, adherence to the statutory requirement of a trial on the merits would likely impose a hardship on officials of public housing authorities and others, including the courts. This would be particularly true if it
could be demonstrated persuasively that individuals like the defendant in
Wallace default in large numbers when these civil trials are scheduled.
But, no such figures documenting court defaults appear in the text or the
footnotes of the court's opinion. By the court's own standards, hardship, in
these circumstances, is not a factor that should be taken into account. “We
cannot interpret a statute so as to avoid injustice or hardship,” the same
court has written, “if its language is clear and unambiguous and requires a
different construction.”63
It is not uncommon for appellate courts, when scrutinizing statutory
language under challenge in criminal cases, to arrive at results which do
not appear to serve society's interests or carry out the apparent legislative
intent. Yet, there is not, and should not, be a rush to label all these results
as absurd. “We have no doubt,” Justice Wilkins wrote in Commonwealth
v. Boone, about the escape of the defendant (determined to be a sexually
dangerous person and serving a term of from one day to life), “that the law
at 83 (5th ed. 1992).
61. See DaLuz v. Dept. of Correction, 746 N.E.2d 501, 508-09 (Mass. 2001)
(stating "[w]e recognize that the statutory language [M ASS. GEN. LAWS ch. 30, §58]
appears to creatye an anomaly: a partially disabled employee injured by violence of a
prisoner or a patient may recover more assault pay benefits than a totally disabled
62. Roucoulet, 601 N.E.2d at 473. For further discussion of Roucoulet, see
supra notes 35-37 and accompanying text.
63. Rosenbloom v. Kokofsky, 369 N.E.2d 1142, 1144 (Mass. 1977) (citing
Milton v. Metro. Dist. Comm’n, 172 N.E.2d 696, 700 (Mass. 1961)).
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should provide a penalty for what the defendant did. No statute, or combination of statutes, however, does so.” 64 More recently, the Massachusetts
Appeals Court has ruled that handwritten notes containing sexually graphic language and propositions allegedly left (along with money) by an adult
in the desk of a fifth-grade student do not constitute “printed material” for
purposes of the obscenity statutes.65 Similarly, the Supreme Judicial Court
has concluded that the statute66 which criminalizes the act of making annoying telephone calls is not violated when an individual instead sends a
series of allegedly annoying facsimile transmissions to a television station.67
Further examples and variations of such results abound in the criminal
law, all of which could easily be viewed as absurd since the net effect is
that the offensive conduct goes unpunished. But it is not the function of
the courts to be writing or re-writing laws or labeling as absurd results
which do not conform to the court's way of thinking. “Courts are not at
liberty to impose their views of the way things ought to be simply because
that's what must have been intended, otherwise no statute, contract or recorded word, no matter how explicit, could be saved from judicial tinkering.”68
It is in the very last sentence, however, of the analysis in Wallace that
the court stands its own reasoning upside down and exposes how shallow
and disingenuous its position really is. “A sensible construction of the
provision in question,” the court writes, “is that no permanent [restraining]
order shall be granted until there has been an opportunity for a trial on the
merits.”69 Having waited until the end to volunteer that interpretation, the
court adds, in a footnote, that “[w]e need not speculate as to the reason for
the language in the statute.”70 But the glaring reality is that the court is
doing precisely that, speculating, qualifying, “tinkering” with the legislative language. Putting it another way, the inescapable conclusion is that,
despite its silence on the subject, the court indeed does find ambiguous the
phrase “trial on the merits” in Chapter 121B, section 32F. To achieve its
desired objective, the court cannot bring itself to admit this ambiguity.
64. Boone, 477 N.E.2d at 1029.
65. See Commonwealth v. O'Keefe, 723 N.E.2d 1000, 1005 (Mass. App. Ct.
M ASS. GEN. LAWS ch. 269, § 14A (1998).
See Commonwealth v. Richards, 690 N.E.2d 419 (Mass. 1998).
Kilpatrick v. Superior Court of Arizona, 466 P.2d 18, 27 (1970).
Wallace, 730 N.E.2d at 278 (emphasis in original).
Id. at 278 n.3.
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When there is ambiguity in the language of a penal statute, the defendant
by a long, courageous tradition is entitled to the benefit of that ambiguity.
This court, however, lacks the courage and intellectual honesty to confer
on him that benefit.
Even more egregious, the court in this shattering conclusion to its analysis violates bedrock principles of judicial and legislative separation of
powers. Only four years earlier, the same court practically boasted of its
ability to recognize the limits of its authority by quoting strong language
from its earlier cases: “We have traditionally and consistently declined to
trespass on legislative territory in deference to the time tested wisdom of
the separation of powers as expressed in art. XXX of the Declaration of
Rights of the Constitution of Massachusetts even when it appeared that a
highly desirable and just result might thus be achieved.”71
Suggesting or implying that the legislature really meant an “opportunity” for a trial on the merits is more than an innocent “trespass on legislative territory.” “We are not permitted to add words to a statute that ‘the
Legislature did not see fit to put there,’”72 the same court has spoken. “We
must construe the statutes as they are written.” 73 The real, practical difference between trial on the merits and an “opportunity” for trial on the merits is not a subtle nuance. It is a difference in kind, not in degree, a wholesale revamping of the statute, a diminution from statutory insistence on the
real thing to a mere “opportunity” for the real thing. There is not a whisper, a hint in Chapter 121B, section 32F, that that is what the legislature
In Commonwealth v. Smith,74 a very different but instructive case, the
Massachusetts Appeals Court agreed with the prosecution that “the defendant's conduct [digital penetration and oral intercourse with his elevenyear-old daughter], if true, is shocking and abhorrent.”75 Yet, the court
affirmed the defendant's motion to dismiss the two indictments charging
incest (additional indictments charged indecent assault and battery and
assault and battery) on the grounds that the defendant's alleged acts did
not constitute “sexual intercourse” within the meaning and purview of
Chapter 272, section 17. “We have no right,” Justice Smith wrote, “to read
into the incest statute ‘a provision which the legislature did not see fit to
put there. . . .’ To do so would amount to judicial legislation, which is
71. Pielech v. Massasoit Greyhound, Inc., 668 N.E.2d 1298, 1302 (Mass. 1996)
(citations omitted).
72. Commonwealth v. Russ R., 744 N.E.2d 39, 43 (Mass. 2001) (citations omi tted).
73. Brennan v. Election Comm’rs of Boston, 39 N.E.2d 636, 638 (Mass. 1942).
74. 710 N.E.2d 1003 (Mass. App. Ct. 1999).
75. Id. at 1005.
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forbidden by Article 30 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” 76
By urging that the legislature really meant an “opportunity” for trial on
the merits and not an actual trial on the merits in Chapter 121B, section
32F, the court in Wallace for all practical purposes added to the statute “a
provision which the Legislature did not see fit to put there.” 77 That interpretation may be a sensible one, in the eyes of many, but the crucial language needed to support that interpretation is altogether missing. Moreover, there are other, equally sensible interpretations of the statute, as written. Statutory insistence on a trial on the merits may convey, for example,
a legislative disdain for permanent restraining orders. It is just as plausible
to assume that the legislature was expressing a preference that permanent
restraining orders be issued only after all parties have had their day in
Far from being a careful, thoughtful analysis, the decision in Wallace is
the judicial equivalent of a “quick fix.” It is a triumph of political correctness and expediency over the rights of a criminal defendant to the orderly
process of law. It represents not only judicial activism running amuck and
trampling over the explicit wishes of the legislature but a cavalier disregard for the sanctity of the English language. It is an erosion of individual
rights that society in the long run can ill afford.
76. Id. at 1006 (citations omitted).
77. Id. (citing King v. Viscoloid Co., 106 N.E. 988, 989 (Mass. 1914)).