Wooden Statutory Interpretation

Critics of the D.C. Circuit’s panel decision in Halbig v. Burwell are condemning the decision for its wooden interpretation of the Affordable Care Act.  This got me to wondering how and when that phrase entered the lexicon.

The first reference I can find in the United States comes from the Indiana Supreme Court in 1906.  State v. Lowry stated that courts should “avoid a wooden interpretation of the words and become able to apprehend the spirit of the statute.”  Perhaps there was some earlier British usage (the phrase certainly sounds British), but I don’t know.

This raises a related point that has always puzzled me.  Lawyers of a certain age like to say when giving credit to someone that they took “the laboring oar” on a case or a project.  I had never heard anyway say this until I went into practice, and I haven’t heard it since I left practice.  Where does that one come from?


You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    “Laboring oar the oar which requires most strength and exertion; often used figuratively; as, to have, or pull, the laboring oar in some difficult undertaking. ”


    Does sound like a British term with naval origins or maybe from the rowing team at university.

  2. joanheminway says:

    I guess I am of that “certain age.” This expression was used in our family when I was a kid (1960s and 1970s, Long Island, NY) and I continue to use it. It tends to be most meaningfully descriptive in group work where one is designating primary folks for certain group tasks–e.g., “Will you take the laboring oar on that piece?”

    I know nothing about the origins of the phrase, unfortunately. But I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks!