Commonwealth v. Valjean

January 25th, 2013

I am teaching the legendary Case of the Speluncean Explorers in class this week. I had forgotten that one of the made-up cases is a direct reference to Les Mis, Commonweal v. Valjean, a takeoff, of course of Jean Val Jean. From the opinion:

This is Commonwealth v. Valjean. Though the case is somewhat obscurely reported, it appears that the defendant was indicted for the larceny of a loaf of bread, and offered as a defense that he was in a condition approaching starvation. The court refused to accept this defense. If hunger cannot justify the theft of wholesome and natural food, how can it justify the killing and eating of a man? Again, if we look at the thing in terms of deterrence, is it likely that a man will starve to death to avoid a jail sentence for the theft of a loaf of bread? My brother’s demonstrations would compel us to overrule Commonwealth v. Valjean, and many other precedents that have been built on that case.

Here are the facts, as retold in the musical. It’s actually pretty deep in jurisprudence. The Javert-Valjean dynamic is wonderful.

Now bring me prisoner 24601
Your time is up
And your parole’s begun
You know what that means.

Yes, it means I’m free.

It means you get
Your yellow ticket-of-leave
You are a thief

I stole a loaf of bread.

You robbed a house.

I broke a window pane.
My sister’s child was close to death
And we were starving.

You will starve again
Unless you learn the meaning of the law.

I know the meaning of those 19 years
A slave of the law

For the video, fast-forward to 2:29.


For what it’s worth, in my book I referred to former-Speaker Pelosi as “Master of the House.” Mistress of Madam of the the House had the wrong connotation. Anyway Pelosi’s confiscatory philosophy jives well with those of the Thenardiers.