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Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Years and the Law

Thanks to Dan for having me as a guest on Prawfs. To commemorate my last day here (since I won't be able to celebrate its anniversary for another four years), I thought I'd contribute to the emerging and important "Law and . . . / . . . and the Law" movement by briefly surveying the extent to which courts and commentators have grappled with the problem of February 29. In this post I will offer the modest suggestion that by understanding the law's interaction with the leap year, we can gain a better understanding of the law more generally.

The Supreme Court has not interacted with the subject of leap years since seminally denying a seaman's motion for reargument of the question of whether  failure to pay his wages was "without sufficient cause," thereby violating Section 3 of the Seamen's Act. (McCrea v. United States, 294 U.S. 382 (1935)) The seaman supported his motion by referring to the vessel's log, which stated that he was "last seen aboard the ship at 9:00 AM March 1st, 1928." This, in conjunction with the conceded fact that the vessel had arrived in the port of London on Sunday, February 26, 1928, and had sailed the following Friday, March 2, 1928, would have meant (since the year was a leap year) that McCrea was on board the vessel until after its cargo was discharged (which would have occurred one day prior to the vessel's departure from the port). Thus, McCrea argued, "the failure to pay his wages before his departure on March 1st was therefore without sufficient cause." (294 U.S. at 383) A Lexis search for "leap year" generates 219 other federal cases that mention the term, and a similar search of state cases turns up 268 of those that do the same. As might be expected, these cases involve courts' mentioning the fact that leap years intervened during statutes of limitations, sentences, and other sorts of day-counting exercises.

That the Court only mentioned the term "leap year" once in its history means not that its interaction with leap years was limited to one lone issue of admiralty law. The famous "Leap Year Trilogy" of interstate nuisance cases culminating in Illinois v. City of Milwaukee, 406 U.S. 91 (1972), and the subsequent enactment of the Clean Water Act preempted the federal common law of interstate nuisance.

As might be expected, there was a surge in leap year coverage in the law journals around 1999-2000, which responded to the public's demand for legal solutions to the then-current Y2K "Problem." Among the major issues that were expected to cause extreme malfunction (and massive liability on the part of big businesses) in the Year 2000 was the fact that it was a leap year while the year 1900 was not; the thought was that computer systems would fail to recognize February 29, 2000.  Of course, the hysteria surrounding Y2K doomsday predictions amounted to nothing. Any hysteria surrounding the end of my guest-blogs should be similarly disregarded.

It's been fun here. Thanks for having me. Love, Liz

Posted by Liz Glazer on February 29, 2008 at 12:27 PM | Permalink


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Really enjoyed your guest-posts. Thanks & looking forward to your forthcoming works!

Posted by: Ori Blum | Mar 2, 2008 9:13:40 PM

Happy Bissextile Day to you too! (Did you try searching that term?)

Posted by: supremecourtjester | Feb 29, 2008 7:27:24 PM

Happy Bissextile Day to you too! (Did you try searching that term?)

Posted by: supremecourtjester | Feb 29, 2008 7:25:18 PM

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