What is the point of law? Is it to settle disputes that arise between two individuals; the way common law was born? Or perhaps law is meant to spur debate on the use of the oxford comma, like a high stakes schoolhouse lesson on grammar.
The whole situation is silly from the beginning. You have to peel back layers of ridiculousness before you can even get at the issue: that truckers just won millions of dollars in overtime from their employer because the state law did not insert an oxford comma into their overtime rule.
Maine law states that the following industries are exempt from a rule requiring overtime pay:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.
Does that law exempt “packing for shipment” as well as “distribution” of those goods from the overtime law? Or does it exempt “packing” for “shipment or distribution” as the truckers argued?
Seriously, that is what this case revolved around.
The truckers ended up convincing the courts that the law was ambiguous enough so that they could expect overtime, since “packing” could be understood to apply to both “shipment and distribution” as opposed to “distribution” being a separate sector which does not get overtime.
But a better question: why was the government ever allowed to insert itself into the employee employer relationship to force certain businesses to pay employees overtime?
Can people not decide to accept a job or not based on the agreement the company gives you from the beginning?
The state should not be governing overtime pay in private transactions, and the truckers should not be shaking down their employer because the state left out a comma in its law.
And this is the whole problem with the current state of law in the USA. There is no common law, or common sense, when deciding verdicts. The question was not, “were these truck drivers wronged by their employer?” The question was, “who did the government intend to point their guns at when writing that law?”
Because that is what laws come down to: government’s guns pointed at some party to use force to prevent or compel an action.
Government Statutes Destroy Real Law
Inevitably, there will be disputes between humans. In an essay called “The Obviousness of Anarchy,” John Hasnas argues that the best society achievable is one where the entire governing structure is meant only to settle disputes.
The rule of law was born out of trying to peacefully solve disputes that might have otherwise erupted into violence. Common law is a collection of these outcomes, so that others in similar predicaments can see what worked to avoid violent outcomes.
…common law provides us with rules that facilitate peace and cooperative activities. Government legislation provides us with rules that facilitate the exploitation of the politically powerless by the politically dominant. The former bring order to society; the latter tend to produce strife. Hence, not only is government not necessary to create the basic rules of social order, it is precisely the rules that the government does create that tend to undermine that order.
This means there had to first be a conflict before any legal proceedings in common law. In this case with the truck drivers, there was no conflict. The conflict arose when they saw something in a government law that could be exploited for monetary gain.
The conflict was not that they were being “forced” to work overtime with no pay; they knew that going into the job. If they didn’t like it, since they are not slaves, they could quit their job
It is insane to consider an employee/ employer relationship for mutual gain exploitative unless one party breaks an agreement that was the basis for the employment. Had they been promised overtime pay by their employer, and the employer reneged on that promise, that would be a basis for a claim against the employer. The lack of a comma is no legitimate basis to seek damages.
Governments really muddy the waters of law when they go and codify behaviors we all know are naturally illegal, like murder or theft, next to laws which have nothing to do with right or wrong, like how much companies should pay employees based on the hours they work, and sector of the economy.
It is true that most of our current law exists in the form of statutes. This is because much of the common law has been codified through legislation. But the fact that politicians recognised the wisdom of the common law by enacting it into statutes, hardly proves that government is necessary to create rules of law. Indeed, it proves precisely the opposite.
That is the problem. That it is impossible for regular people to understand government law, and practically impossible for anyone to mistake common law.
Understanding the traditional rules of common law requires only that one be a member of the relevant community to which the rules apply, not that one be an attorney.
Government legislation, in contrast, need have no relationship to either the understanding or the moral sensibility of the ordinary person.
But what government legislation does apparently require, is a firm understanding of grammar, lest the lack of an oxford comma cost you millions of dollars.