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Dyson Distinguished Lecture

Professor Sarah B. Lawsky, University of California School of LawMarch 23, 2015, 12 pm
Ottinger Building, Room 201; Reception immediately following in the Tudor Room

Professor Sarah B. Lawsky, University of California - Irvine School of Law

"Rule-Based Legal Reasoning"


Case-based reasoning is, without question, a puzzle. When students are taught to "think like lawyers" in their first year of law school, they are taught case-based common-law reasoning. Books on legal reasoning are devoted almost entirely to the topic. How do courts reason from one case to the next? Is case-based reasoning reasoning from analogy? How should case-based reasoning be modeled? How can it be justified?

In contrast, rule-based legal reasoning (as exemplified in much statutory reasoning) is taken as simple in legal scholarship. Statutory interpretation—how to determine the meaning of words in a statute, the relevance of the lawmakers’ intent, and so forth—is much discussed, but there is little treatment of the structure of statutory reasoning once the meaning of the words is established. Once the meaning of terms is established, statutory reasoning is considered, roughly speaking, to be deductive reasoning.

This talk will examine the structure of statutory reasoning after ambiguities are resolved and the meaning of the statute’s terms established. It will argue that standard formal logic is not the best approach for modeling statutory rule-based reasoning. Rather, the talk will argue, using the Internal Revenue Code and accompanying regulations, judicial decisions, and rulings as its primary example, that at least some statutory reasoning is best characterized as defeasible reasoning—reasoning that may result in conclusions that can be defeated by subsequent information—and is best modeled using default logic. The talk will then address the practical and theoretical benefits of this alternative understanding of rule-based legal reasoning.


The Dyson Distinguished Lecture was endowed in 1982 by a gift from the Dyson Foundation made possible through the generosity of the late Charles H. Dyson, a 1930 graduate, trustee, and long-time benefactor of Pace University. The principal aim and object of the Dyson Distinguished Lecture is to encourage and make possible scholarly legal contributions of very high quality in furtherance of Pace Law School's educational mission.

Charles H. Dyson was born August 2, 1909, and died at the age of 87 on March 14, 1997. He was well known as a financier, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He was considered a pioneer in the field of leveraged buyouts and was best known for his government service. After graduating from Pace Institute in 1930, he began a career in public accounting. Dr. Dyson was a lifelong Democrat who worked for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served in World War II. In 1954, he founded the Dyson-Kissner-Moran Corporation, a New York investment company that has become one of the nation's largest privately held corporations. Pace University's Dyson College of Arts and Sciences is also named in his honor.


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