Interpreting WSFS Rules

It often falls to fans, especially when they're doing Hugo administration or running Site Selection, to apply the WSFS rules to a novel situation where there isn't an obvious or time-honored answer. Because WSFS is set up as a democracy, certain over-arching rules of interpretation govern:

So how does a fan apply the WSFS rules to a novel situation? It's very fannish to approach the WSFS Constitution as if it existed in a vacuum, looking only at the words in the document to understand what it means. Superficially this makes sense -- why look elsewhere when the rules are right there? -- but in practice it yields poor results. Rules interpretation is an area where fandom can usefully borrow from the mundane world where centuries of experience interpreting rules have produced common-sense rules on how to interpret rules!

The Law Trumps WSFS

The first rule of interpretation is that regardless of what the WSFS rules say or appear to say, real-world laws take precedence. Under no circumstances can the WSFS Constitution require something that is against the law nor forbid something which is required. (This may mean that if a bid committee is prevented by law from carrying out a WSFS mandate, they're ineligible to bid or it may mean that if they know in advance that they can't carry out the mandate, they must disclose it to the voters.)

A corollary of this is that if there are two competing interpretations of a rule, and one requires illegal behavior, then the other interpretation is required.

Sense Trumps Nonsense

If there are two alternate interpretations of a rule, and one results in an absurdity, then the other is the preferred interpretation. (This comes from the basic democratic principle that we always assume that the WSFS BM knew what it was doing when it wrote the rules. Assuming without good evidence that WSFS intended an absurdity puts the interpreter in the position of overruling WSFS. No matter how cynical we may enjoy being, democracy requires us to treat the WSFS BM as knowing what it is doing absent unambigious evidence to the contrary.)

Ordinary Language Trumps Terms of Art

When reading a rule, always understand its words to have their ordinary, every-day, meaning when the rule was passed unless the document clearly and unambiguously indicates differently. Ordinary meaning for WSFS means ordinary fannish meaning, of course: Never assume a real-world technical meaning unless it was common usage in fandom when the rule was passed. Similarly when words have multiple meanings, take the most common meaning that makes sense in the context rather than an obscure sense of the word. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, you must assume that WSFS used the ordinary fannish meanings of words when writing its rules.

Read the Rules in the Context of the Whole Document

In general no rule stands alone, but is each part of the whole set of WSFS rules. Other WSFS rules are an excellent guide to understanding what a particular rule means or what a word or phrase means. An interpretation which rests on assuming without good evidence that a term has a different meaning in one rule than it does in others should be avoided. (Nonetheless, remember that we haven't always taken as much care as we should have when amending the WSFS Constitution, so sometime words do have different meanings in different rules. See below, Keep History in Mind.)

See also for an interesting discussion.

Assume Each Rule Means Something

Given two interpretations, one of which robs a rule of any effective meaning or of having any practical consequence, choose the interpretation where the rule actually does something. Absent unambiguous evidence to the contrary, you must always assume that the people who made a rule intended to accomplish something by it and didn't deliberately write a rule which did nothing consequential. (Note that this does not mean that given two differing interpretations in both of which the rule has substantial consequences, you must pick the one with the larger consequence. While it is necessary to assume that the framers of the rule intended to accomplish something meaningful, you can't assume more than that.)

A corollary of this rule is that if you have two interpretations and one interpretation gives substantive meaning to every part of a rule, while the other makes some part of the rule meaningless or strips it of substantial effect, the former interpretation is the be preferred. (For example, the Supreme Court ruled that a government agency could not get around its quorum rules by having a quorum for five minutes and then declining to go out of session for a year. While this appeared to meet the letter of the law, it deprived the quorum requirement of any substantial meaning and thus was invalid.)

This is a consequence of the basic democratic principle which requires us to respect the people who wrote the rules and to assume that they were sensible people who meant to accomplish something and were competent enough to say what they meant.

A Supreme Court decision said, "...a statute should be construed so that effect is given to all its provisions, so that no part will be inoperative or superfluous, void or insignificant."

Big Things Aren't Hidden

Given two interpretations of a rule, if one of them has large and novel or unexpected consequences, the other is to be preferred. If WSFS had meant a rule to make a big change in the way things are done, this wouldn't only be discovered years later. Consequently, any reinterpretation which overturns common practice is suspect.

The US Supreme Court summed up this rule neatly in an opinion where they said "The Congress does not hide elephants in mouse holes."  In another case, a commentator reporting on SCOTUS proceedings, noted that "though the language and structure of the statute had changed, the Court concluded that these changes could not overcome the presumption that 'Congress does not enact substantive changes sub silentio,' "

Precedent Matters

All other things being equal, deference should be given to precedent. This means that where there are two plausible interpretations and one of them has been applied most of the time when the issue has arisen previously, that interpretation is to be preferred. This does not mean that an incorrect precedent must be followed, though you are always well-advised to be very sure of your reasoning before ignoring precedent. The reason for following precedent is that that's what people expect and often they've based their actions on the expectation that the precedent will be followed. (That also means that if a precedent is not well known, less deference is due it.)

But the reasoning used in deciding a precedent is only important in understanding that precedent. The pattern of reasoning does not necessarily apply to other instances. In the real world, Chief Justice Marshall wrote "It is a maxim not to be disregarded that general expressions, in every opinion, are to be taken in connection with the case in which those expressions are used. If they go beyond the case, they may be respected, but ought not to control the judgment in a subsequent suit when the very point is presented for decision. The reason of this maxim is obvious. The question actually before the Court is investigated with care, and considered in its full extent. Other principles which may serve to illustrate it are considered in their relation to the case decided, but their possible bearing on all other cases is seldom completely investigated." So be wary of overgeneralization.

Read the Record

Where a record of debate exists, this can be invaluable in determining what was meant. In general, the meaning used by the side that prevailed is determinative. (But if supporters of the winning side were inconsistent, no conclusions can be drawn; you can't pick a convenient subset of the winning side's reasoning.) No conclusions can be drawn based on something that was defeated, since you cannot know why it was defeated. In general, a recorded vote in a relevant committee trumps individual statements about what the individual thought a motion meant, and a vote at the BM trumps anything which happened in committee.

E.g., if a motion that listed Ireland as part of the old Eastern zone passed, you could safely assume that WSFS regarded Ireland as part of the zone. But if such an amendment was proposed and failed to pass, you could not use that as evidence of much of anything -- it might simply have been that the motion would have had a side-effect that particular year which adversely affected a popular bidder and it was consequently defeated. You just don't know.

On the other hand, a notion of what was intended can't trump plain language. One commentator wrote "One of the great questions of statutory interpretation is when, if ever, a court should look beyond the text of a statute to consider congressional intent. The prevailing view is that courts may consider congressional intent only when faced with an ambiguous statute that could fairly be read in two or more ways. In contrast, it is verboten to consider intent when faced with unambiguous statutory language."

What's this Whereas business?

It's often the case that a motion comes provided with more-or-less elaborate "Whereas" clauses which explain why the maker of the motion made it -- they're frequently hifalutin debate snuck in as part of a motion. A basic rule of real-world law is that a Whereas clause is not part of the law. Even if a motion containing Whereas clauses is passed, the clauses themselves are not part of the motion. They can be used to resolve ambiguities in the act itself, but never to change what the rule says.  The US Supreme Court in a ruling reported: "Next, Justice Alito turned to the 37 "whereas" clauses that preface the Apology Resolution, which make various observations about Hawaii's history. Justice Alito concluded that those clauses do not serve as a congressional recognition of native Hawaiians' unrelinquished claims to the land for three reasons. First, as the Court explained in Heller, such preambles do not enlarge the meaning of the substantive provisions of an act, and should only be relied on where necessary to resolve ambiguities in the act itself..."

Keep History in Mind

Always, always remember that the WSFS rules are rooted in history and must be understood in the context in which they were passed, and remember that the WSFS rules were built up over time and older language was usually not re-edited each time a change was made. (This means that the same word or phrase can sometimes have different meaning in different parts of the document when a sloppy job of updating was done. This should not be assumed, and should only be accepted when the evidence is clear.)

For example, the meaning of the term 'professional' has changed over time. At one point SF literature was neatly divided between a few professional magazines and books on the one hand and fanzines on the other. Rules written then tend not to define 'professional' because it was obvious. Later, as the gap between the prozines and the fanzines became filled in, more elaborate definitions were invented, but older rules were not always re-written, so the meaning of 'professional' is not consistent throughout the WSFS Constitution.

It's tempting to say that when "professional" was redefined in later amendments, that redefinition applies everywhere, but we know from history that that is not the WSFS Way -- the WSFS BM rarely considers these side-effects it is debates, so, absent clear evidence, we cannot assume that it intended a definition change to be universal.

It's a Practical Matter

The distinguished jurist Richard Posner wrote:

"Finally, I can't resist responding to the two commenters who asked me to identify the principal misconceptions of first-year law students. There are two, and they are closely related. The first is the idea that the law exists somewhere, in a book presumably (or, to be modern, in an electronic database), and that what you learn in law school is how to find the book, and that what law professors do, to justify making you sit in class for three years, is hide the book from you. The second misconception is that legal reasoning is something special, subtle, esoteric, which will enable you once you have learned it to answer a question in a way that would make no sense to a lay person. In other words--and this is what joins the misconceptions--law is a mystery.

"But what law really is is a tool that law school shows you how to use. It is a rhetoric, a vocabulary, a tradition, a set of rules and conventions, which you can use to achieve practical results, which are the only results worth having. So if you're a judge -- which sounds like something special, something far removed from the real world of nonlawyers, but is not, or should not be -- you are given problems that you try to solve in a way that will be realistic, having regard for the issues at stake, the relevant moral values of your society, the interest in providing guidance for the future, the goals behind applicable rules or standards, the value of a certain kind of neutrality or impersonality, and perhaps other considerations both particular to the case at hand and systemic. You should be able to explain your decision in a way that would make sense to a lay person, but need not convince him, because the conventional legal materials of decision are often indeterminate when applied to a case that has reached the appellate level, and then the decision will reflect values or experiences of the judge that are not universally held in the society, although presumably the decision will fall within some general range of reasonableness or acceptability.

"In short, it should be possible to explain everything in law in perfectly simple, everyday, common sense terms. That should be the law student's, the lawyer's, and the judge's creed."

It's a Practical Matter, Part 2

The purpose of rules like the WSFS Constitution is to facilitate the practical process of running Worldcons. Any attempt to get around the rules by esoteric reasoning or by following "the letter of the law" is suspect. When in doubt, ask yourself "Is this what the people who passed this rule intended? Does it make sense? Or are we playing games?" Value substance over clever reasoning.


But in spite of all of the foregoing rules, when it is clear that WSFS used words differently in different places or really meant a rule to be moot or nonsensical, then that is how it must be read. These rules for interpretation are guides when sure knowledge is unavailable. But a clear and unambiguous reason to believe that the WSFS Business meeting intended otherwise always trumps every theoretical argument. Because we're a democracy.