In its decision regarding the terrorist attack against the USS Cole, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose between “letter of the law” and “spirit of the law.” It’s an interesting contest, even though the court’s decision did not favor our guys.
Basically, “letter of the law” means strict adherence to the law, as it is written, while “spirit of the law” means adherence to the law as it is intended. An example would be the traffic law “STOP.” Under “letter of the law,” the law means “don’t move beyond this sign without coming to a full stop and checking in both directions to see if it is safe to progress.” Under “spirit of the law,” however, the law might not frown upon someone who ran the stop sign if an emergency situation required it, such as avoiding a falling tree or an accident in progress.
In the case of the Cole, the plaintiffs served papers for their lawsuit to the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, they should have served the papers to the foreign minister’s office in Sudan. The spirit of the law was that they served the papers to a bonafide representative of the Sudanese foreign minister. The court ruled that the letter of the law was more important and should be upheld to protect respect for the law in international matters.
The court’s decision cost the victims the $315 million they won in a lower court. Will the victims sue again, this time serving the foreign minister’s office in Sudan, or will they sue their own lawyers, who should have known better? Since the matter already has dragged on since the attack in October of 2000, the litigants may have to pack up, go home, and do their best to survive on their own. Sometimes, life just ain’t fair.