Pi and the Law: What Is Constant and What Is Not

pi_day_pieTomorrow is Pi Day. In fact, it is the ultimate Pi Day given that Saturday’s date is 3.14.15. Enjoy a delicious piece of apple pie at 9:26.53 and you’ve taken the festivities about as far as you can hope to. Mathematicians, on the other hand, have carried this irrational national number out to over a trillion decimal places and determined that pi is a transcendental number (it cannot be expressed by any finite series or arithmetical or algebraic operation). Conceptually, pi symbolizes the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is constant, and perhaps that is what we should celebrate most.

There are few things in today’s world that are constant. One could argue that things today change at greater speed than ever before in history. Invention drives change–whether it is a new technology, process, or connection. In particular, scientific discoveries advance change, yet these discoveries rely on unwavering empirical laws and principles.

We, as lawyers, do not have the luxury of such a solid foundation. That is, our field depends on laws that are always changing—if not in form, then in interpretation. We must be nimble, able to change our theory as facts of the case are revealed, as new laws are passed, as politics and technology change, as the jury is selected, or as the judiciary announces a decision. There is no mathematical equation that provides a determinative estimation despite all the rules, codes and regulations that we study. And the closest thing to a constant that we have is the Constitution, which we all know has been interpreted differently over time.

This variability may provide the flexibility society needs to evolve while maintaining order. However, for some individuals, this lack of predictability can make life chaotic and tumultuous.

For example, consider immigration law. This field continues to evolve and change rapidly with new political leaders and bickering legislatures. While the law is trying to adapt to the changing landscape of the United States, individuals’ lives, plans, and goals linger.

Through my experiences with the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic and my work as a study abroad coordinator in the Office of International Education, I have seen this phenomenon first hand. For instance, I work with students who want to study abroad as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. While the law currently provides a process to gain permission to leave and re-enter the country, they are not guaranteed the right to re-enter even having obtained permission. Further, with upcoming elections looming, it is uncertain if DACA will remain an option for students. Needless to say, under such a cloud of uncertainty, their ability to focus on their academic pursuits, including studying abroad, becomes seriously compromised.

Uncertainty can also arise from how the law is applied by judges. Take for example asylum cases. Despite having a very narrow and defined standard, judges apply it very differently when granting or not granting this status. During a talk by Dr. Noelle Brigden last fall, this chart was shown. I was shocked by the disparity in case decisions. Some judges seldom granted asylum, yet others almost always granted this status. How can that be justified by law? I find it troubling that a person’s fate may rest not on the merits and needs of immigrating to the U.S. but rather on who is sitting on the bench.

As a law student, I continue to better grasp how the law and its practice equate to consistent justice. As the government becomes increasingly polarized, technology advances, the economy fluctuates, and the law morphs, today I take solace in celebrating pi, Archimedes’ irrational constant, with a piece of my favorite, homemade, and very transcendental, chocolate pie. Bon appetit!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Melissa Greipp


    Thanks for your great post. I, along with some others, will be celebrating Pi Day tomorrow at the appointed moment, probably after calculating the circumference of the pie. Here’s another post about Pi Day from the Volokh Conspiracy.

    One thing I enjoy about both law and science is that just when you think you’ve figured out the puzzle, another nuance, another new facet appears. I also think that the logic of law and science are closer than many might guess. The topics are different, but the basic forms of logic (deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning), are the same–a universal constant. Some points of law may even be reduced to an equation, like Learned Hand’s algebraic formula, B<PL (the Learned Hand Formula, to which Professor Boyden referred in a recent faculty workshop).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.