There is a default theory of legal content that many legal positivists – and non-positivists – accept. It is that the legal contents of texts, or of authoritative pronouncements in general, are, or match, their full (that is, pragmatically-enriched) linguistic contents. Nine years ago, Mark Greenberg published an influential article called The Standard Picture and Its Discontents, attacking what he called the “Standard Picture” predominant among legal theorists. The aforementioned default theory of legal content is one of what Greenberg called the Standard Picture’s “prongs.” Among Greenberg’s objections to this theory, which is sometimes referred to as a “communicative content theory” of law, is that it cannot account for aspects of familiar legal practice.1 Dale Smith refers to this type of objection as a “practice-based objection.” (He notes that Greenberg is not the only legal theorist to raise a practice-based objection to the communicative content theory.) Practice-based objections, from Greenberg and others, depict an apparent gap between communicative content and legal content. This gap is especially troublesome for many theorists of statutory legal content. In particular, the gap poses a problem for anyone attracted to the idea that statutes are communications from the legislature and ought to be understood and applied the way ordinary communications are.
In this intriguing article, Smith is both friend to a communicative content theory and foe. He is a friend by demonstrating, again and again, how practice-based objections raised so far can be accommodated by such a theory. But he turns foe with his consideration of the practice of using what he refers to as “retrospectively operating modifier laws.” His thesis is that practice-based objections to date are not fatal to a communicative content theory of law, but that there is a practice-based objection that may be. Continue reading "Greenberg Got it Wrong: What Legal Practice Does and Does Not Reveal About Legal Content"