Dyson Distinguished Lecture

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks to students

Professor Sarah B. Lawsky, University of California School of LawMarch 23, 2015

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 examined the structure of statutory reasoning after ambiguities are resolved and the meaning of the statute’s terms established. Ms. Lawsky argued 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 also addressed the practical and theoretical benefits of this alternative understanding of rule-based legal reasoning.


Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh JohnsonApril 10, 2014
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

February 8, 2013
Professor Horatia Muir Watt
"Sex Regimes and Corporate Governance: a Transatlantic Conversation"

April 26, 2012
Professor Steven M. Wise
"The Nonhuman Rights Project's Struggle for Nonhuman Personhood"

February 9, 2012
Professor Heidi M. Hurd
David C. Baum Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois
“Fouling Our Nest: Is An (Environmental) Ethic Impotent Against (Bad) Economics”

November 12, 2010
Janet Halley
Royal Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
"After Gender? Examining International Justice Enterprises"

January 25, 2010
Sunny Schwartz, Esq. 
Programs Administrator, San Francisco Sheriff's Department
Founder, Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP)
"Can Prisons Make Us Safer?: Restorative Justice and Criminal Justice Reform"

April 16, 2009
Dr. Cornel West
Class of 1943 University Professor, Princeton University Center for African American Studies
"In the Age of Obama"

April 23, 2008
Howard Lesnick
Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School
“The Practice of Teaching, the Practice of Law: What Does It Mean to Practice Responsibly?”

April 6, 2006
The Honorable Janet DiFiore
District Attorney, Westchester County, NY
"The Evolving Role of the Modern District Attorney"

Kevin R. Johnson
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Mabie/Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies
University of California at Davis, School of Law
"The Forgotten 'Repatriation' of Persons of Mexican Ancestry and Lessons for the War on Terror"

Professor Harvey J. Goldschmid, Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission
Dwight Professor of Law, Columbia University
"Post Enron America and SEC Perspectives"

Professor Daniel Farber
McKnight Presidential Professor of Public Law, University of Minnesota
"Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Rethinking Environmental Law After American Trucking"

Professor Jesse H. Choper
Earl Warren Professor of Public Law, University of California, Berkeley
"The Presidential Election of 2000 and the Role of the United States Supreme Court"

William E. Kennard
General Counsel, Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
"Implementing the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Toward Consolidation or Competition?"

John C. Coffee, Jr.
Adolf A. Berle Professor of Law, Columbia Law School
"Class Actions After the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and MCA and What Should be Done About It"

The Honorable Joseph W. Bellacosa
New York State Court of Appeals
"Ethical Impulses From the Death Penalty: 'Old Sparky's' Jolt to the Legal Profession"

Sylvia A. Law
Professor of Law, New York University School of Law
"Crystal Eastman"

Panel Presentation: "Justice Brennan: Foundation for the Future"

Nadine Strossen

Professor of Law, New York Law School
Justice Brennan and the Religion Clauses

Gerald Rosberg
Partner, Dewey Ballantine
Justice Brennan and the Law of Obscenity

Ronald Tabak
Special Counsel, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Justice Brennan and the Death Penalty

Bennett L. Gershman
Professor of Law, Pace University School of Law
The Moral Force of His Language

Ralph Michael Stein
Professor of Law, Pace University School of Law
Justice Brennan and the First Amendment Minefield: In Respectful Appreciation

David G. Owen
Webster Professor of Tort Law, University of South Carolina
"Products Liability: Principles of Justice for the 21st Century"

Panel Presentation
Julius L. Chambers, Sally E. Burns, John A. Powell, William Kunstler

Charles L. Black
Sterling Professor of Law Emeritus, Yale University
"The Forest and the Trees in Constitutional Law"

Eugene Rostow
Sterling Professor of Law Emeritus, Yale University; Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law and Diplomacy, National Defense University
"Why Is It So Hard to Negotiate with the Russians?"

Abram Chayes
Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
"The ABM Treaty and the Strategic Defense Initiative"

Harry W. Jones
Cardozo Professor Emeritus of Jurisprudence, Columbia University
"Precedent and Policy in Constitutional Law"


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'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.