OlbrychtPalmer.netAboutArticlesNotesSummary of Fuller, 'The Case of theSpeluncean Explorers'Wednesday, 25 February 2015This is a summary of a fictitious case created in Lon L Fuller, ‘The Case of theSpeluncean Explorers’ (1949) 62(4) Harvard Law Review 616. The case takes place inthe equally fictitious ‘Commonwealth of Newgarth’, and Fuller’s article contains fivejudicial opinions that explore the facts from different legal perspectives. It is useful as anillustration of the scope and diversity of Anglo-American legal philosophy in the mid-20thcentury.Basic factsA group of cave explorers (spelunkers) are trapped by a landslide. Approachingstarvation, they make radio contact with the rescue team. Engineers on the rescue teamestimate that the rescue will take a further 10 days. After describing their situation tophysicians, they are told it is unlikely that they wil survive another 10 days without food.The explorers ask the physicians whether they would survive if they killed and ate one oftheir number. The physicians advise, reluctantly, that they would. When asked if theyought to hold a lottery to determine whom to kill and eat, no one on the rescue team iswilling to advise.The radio is turned off, and later a lottery is held. The loser is killed and eaten. When theyare rescued they are prosecuted for murder, for which, in the Commonwealth ofNewgarth, a guilty verdict carries a mandatory sentence of capital punishment.The opinions of the judges

The defendants were initially convicted and sentenced to be hanged by the ‘Court ofGeneral Instances of the County of Stowfield’ but have brought a petition of error beforethe court. Truepenny CJ provides a more complete overview of the facts than is above.Each judge gives a separate opinion: Truepenny CJ,Judgment of Truepenny CJStatement of factsThe four defendants and the deceased were part of the ‘Speluncean Society’, anamateur cave-exploration organisation, and became trapped in a cavern as a result of alandslide. The remote location made rescue difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Tenworkmen were killed in the rescue.In addition to the Society’s funds, it took an additional 800,000 ‘Frelars’ (ie, the currencyof the Commonwealth of Newgarth) provided by popular subscription and legislativegrant to rescue the explorers. After 32 days, they were rescued.Early on it was recognised that death by starvation was a possibility. On the 20th day, itwas realised that the explorers had a two-way radio of sorts and oral communication wasestablished.The engineers informed the explorers that at least 10 more days would be needed torescue them. Upon further inquiries, a team of medical experts informed that explorersthat considering the conditions and rations inside the cave, the chances of survival for afurther 10 days were remote.The explorers asked whether they would survive if they resorted to cannibalising one ofthe number. It was reluctantly confirmed they could. Whetmore asked if casting lots as towhom should be eaten was advisable; no physician, judge, government official, ministeror priest would provide an answer.No further messages were received from within the cave. When the explorers werereleased, it was learned that on the 23rd day after entering the cave, Whetmore hadbeen killed and eaten.The defendants’ testimony, accepted by the jury, was as follows:Whetmore proposed that they derive the necessary sustenance from killing andeating one of their number. Whetmore also proposed casting lots, using a pair ofdice he happened to have with him. Initially the defendants were reluctant to adoptthis desperate measure, but agreed when hearing the radio conversations. The

explorers devised and agreed upon a method of using the dice to cast lots.Before the dice were cast, Whetmore withdrew from the arrangement claiming hewould wait another week. ‘The others charged him with a breach of faith andproceeded to cast the dice.’ Before throwing the dice on his behalf, the defendantsasked Whetmore to declare any objections to the fairness of the throw. He did notobject, and the throw went against him.Whetmore was put to death and eaten.The defendants were treated for malnutrition and shock, then indicted for murder. At trial,the foreman of the jury (a lawyer by profession) asked the court whether the jury couldfind a special verdict that left it to the court to say whether, on the facts as found, thedefendants were guilty. Both prosecution and defence accepted this.On the facts as found by the jury, the trial judge ruled the defendants were guilty ofmurder and sentenced them to be hanged, the mandatory sentence.Post-trial, the jury joined in a communication to the Chief Executive of Newgarth,requesting the sentence be commuted to imprisonment of six months. The trial judge didsimilar. The Chief Executive waits for the Supreme Court’s disposition of the petition oferror before making a decision regarding clemency.JudgmentTruepenny CJ holds the course taken in the first instance to be ‘fair and wise’; and theonly course open to be taken. The Chief Justice acknowledges that no exception to thestatutory provision applies, regardless of how sympathetic people may be.The Chief Justice prefers to rely on possible executive clemency, described as‘mitigating the rigors of the law’, and proposes that the Supreme Court joins in thecommunication to the Chief Executive, expecting clemency to be granted. Justice canbe done in this way, without disregarding either the letter or spirit of the law.Thus, Truepenny CJ upholds the conviction.Judgment of Foster JFoster J criticises Truepenny CJ’s attempt to ‘escape the embarrassments of this tragiccase.’ His Honour believes that the very law of Newgarth is on trial, and if the defendantsare found to have committed a crime the law of Newgarth is ‘convicted in the tribunal ofcommon sense’.The first ground for this opinion is that positive law’s foundation is the possibility of human

social coexistence. Where this coexistence becomes impossible, the conditionunderlying the law ceases to exist. Foster J states that the maxim cessante ratione legis,ceassat ipsa lex (‘the reason for a law ceasing, the law itself ceases’) applies (thoughacknowledging it is not usually applied to the whole of the enacted law).Foster J considers the coexistence principle to be axiomatic. All law, regardless ofsubject, is directed towards facilitating and improving human coexistence — regulatingfairly and equitably ‘the relations of their life in common.’ Foster J states clearly:When the assumption that men may live together loses its truth, as it obviously did inthis extraordinary situation where life only became possible by the taking of life, thenthe basic premises underlying our whole legal order have lost their meaning andforce.Foster J holds that the explorers were outside the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth: ‘Ifwe look to the purposes of law and government, and to the premises underlying ourpositive law, these men when they made their fateful decision were as remote from ourlegal order as if they had been a thousand miles beyond our boundaries.’The explorers were ‘not in a “state of civil society” but in a “state of nature”’ andconsequently the laws of the Commonwealth of Newgarth do not apply. The principles oflaw to be applied are those that were appropriate to their condition, and ‘under thoseprinciples they were guiltless of any crime.’[In common law jurisprudence, such approaches have been rejected. Consider, as theleading example, the case of R v Dudley (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC where necessity wasrejected as a defence to murder. In that case, two shipwrecked men killed and ate acabin boy who was in a coma. On the other hand, in Cooper v Stuart (1888) 14 App Cas286, the Privy Council held ‘In so far as it is reasonably applicable to the circumstancesof the Colony, the law of England must prevail, until it is abrogated or modified, either byordinance or statute’, basing this on Blackstone’s Commentaries.]Foster J argues that ‘It has from antiquity been recognized that the most basic principleof law or government is to be found in the notion of contract’ and considers that theagreement to cast lots was ‘a new charter of government appropriate to the situation’.Dismissing sceptics, Foster J asserts that it is clear that Newgarth’s government isfounded on some sort of voluntary charter of government to which the currentgovernment can trace itself. The authority to punish is derived from the original compactand no higher source; ‘what higher source should we expect these starving unfortunatesto find for the order they adopted for themselves?’[Fuller has Foster J say ‘Sophistical writers have raised questions as to the power ofthose remote contractors to bind future generations’. A ‘constitutional contract’ does not

operate the same as a civil contract, I would suggest.]If it was proper that ten lives should be sacrificed to save the lives of fiveimprisoned explorers, why then are we told it was wrong for these explorers to carryout an arrangement which would save four lives at the cost of one?Foster J then proceeds to ‘hypothetically’ reject the above premises, and assumes thatthe law applies to the explorers, despite their being somewhat removed from society.This second grounds concerns the interpretation of the statutory provision and promotesan approach to statutory interpretation identifiable as the ‘purposive approach.’Foster J illustrates this with a fictitious example (Commonwealth v Staymore) where thelaw was not applied because a defendant was unable to avoid breaking the letter of thelaw. A second example (Fehler v Neegas) involved a clear typographical error, and thecourt did not take a literal interpretation.Foster J argues ‘there is nothing in the wording of the statute that suggests’ an exceptionof self-defence: ‘The truth is that the exception in favour of self-defense cannot bereconciled with the words of the statute, but only with its purpose.’[Ironically in some jurisdictions this reasoning relating to self-defence does not hold up.For example, in New South Wales there are clear statutory defences, including one ofself-defence: see Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) s 418.]Foster J then goes on to discuss the reasoning behind the self-defence exceptions,arguing that the law cannot deter killing in self-defence where a person’s life isthreatened. In such cases, the killer ‘will repel his aggressor, whatever the law may say.’Foster J applies this reasoning to the explorers — the law does not create a significantdeterrent to persons faced with starvation.Foster J discusses, briefly, judicial usurpation — where a court is accused of usurpingthe legislature by giving a statute or provision a meaning not immediately apparent to thecasual reader who is unaware of the objectives it seeks to attain. Foster J acknowledgeswithout reservation that the court is bound by the statutes and ‘exercises its powers insubservience to the duly expressed will of the Chamber of Representatives’, but defendsjudicial interpretation by saying thatThe stupidest housemaid knows that when she is told to ‘drop everything andcome running’ [her master] has overlooked the possibility that she is at the momentin the act of rescuing the baby from the rain barrel. Surely we have a right to expectthe same modicum of intelligence from the judiciary. The correction of obviouslegislative errors or oversights is not to supplant the legislative will, but to make thatwill effective.

Foster J concludes that the conviction should be set aside.Judgment of Tatting JTatting J begins by stating that in his duties as judge he is normally able to separate theemotional from the intellectual reactions and decide cases based solely on the latter. HisHonour concedes that it is not possible in this case for him to do that, finding himself tornbetween sympathy and abhorrence and unable to dismiss these considerations.His Honour finds Forster J’s opinion ‘is shot through with contradictions and fallacies.’Tatting J is critical of the ‘state of nature’ argument, finding that there is no clear basis forthe assertion that the explorers somehow escaped the jurisdiction. His Honour cannotpinpoint when the supposed transition of jurisdiction occurred.Tatting J also points out that the courts of Newgarth are ‘empowered to administer thelaws of that Commonwealth’, and questions from where the authority to decide casesunder the ‘law of nature’ could possibly be derived.His Honour then examines the content of the ‘code of nature’ proposed by Foster J anddescribes it as ‘odious’. Under the agreement, for example, Whetmore would not havebeen able to exercise his right to self-defence in the cavern as it would be contrary to thebargain.Tatting J finds the notion that criminal law relating to murder cannot operate as adeterrent where a person is faced with the alternative of life or death to be convincing.Citing the fictitious case Commonwealth v Parry, Tatting J agrees that the interpretation ofself-defence provided by Foster J is supported, though that case ‘seems generally tohave been overlooked in the texts and subsequent decisions’.Nevertheless, his Honour states that deterrence is not the only purpose. Orderlyretribution (citing Commonwealth v Scape) and rehabilitation of the wrongdoer (citingCommonwealth v Makeover) are two examples: ‘what are we to do when it has manypurposes or when its purposes are disputed?’But, conversely, the ‘taught doctrine’ in law schools is that ‘The man who acts to repeland aggressive threat to his own life does not act “willfully,” but in response to an impulsedeeply ingrained in human nature.’ His Honour holds that in the case of the explorers,they ‘acted not only “willfully” but with great deliberation’.Tatting J then describes the two paths available: either to follow the ‘virtually unknownprecedent’ of the Supreme Court in Commonwealth v Parry that the crime of murder doesnot sufficiently deter