Is Riggs v. Palmer a “hard case”?

For many legal scholars, the paradigm or textbook example of a “hard case” in law is Riggs v. Palmer, the infamous “murdering heir” case decided in 1889 by the New York Court of Appeals. The facts of this legendary case would make tabloid and cable news headlines today: a wealthy grandfather leaves the majority of his estate in his will to his grandson. Fearing that his grandfather might revoke his will, the grandson kills his grandfather with poison. Here is the legal problem: Does the grandson still have the right to inherit his grandfather’s estate? To us, however, Riggs v. Palmer has always seemed like an easy case …

After all, how can a person be allowed to profit from his own misdeeds? The problem, though, is that this principle is a moral or “equitable” maxim, not a strictly legal one, and at the time this case was decided, there was no positive law–either in the form of legislation or precedent–dealing with murdering heirs. In other words, in probabilistic terms, there was some positive probability that this case might have been decided in favor of the murdering heir! Indeed, one of the judges in the Riggs case wrote a separate dissenting opinion explaining why the murdering heir was still entitled to inherit his grandfather’s estate.

But even so, how likely was it that an Anglo-American court would actually enforce the terms of the will in a case involving a murdering heir? In short, we would define hard cases in terms of how easy or hard it is to predict ex ante (ahead of time) the outcome of any particular legal case. From this perspective, an easy case is a case whose outcome most informed observers are able to accurately predict, while a hard case is a case whose outcome defies prediction regardless of one’s level of legal expertise. From our work-in-progress “Judge Hercules or Judge Bayes?,” edited by us for clarity and conciseness. More here.

This entry was posted in Bayesian Reasoning, Law, Probability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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