Monthly Archives: March 2011

“Plain meaning in context”: The video(s)

Videos of the symposium I wrote about in the previous post are available here, and having watched parts of it, I don’t fees as bad about missing it.

While Richard Epstein’s keynote address was interesting, it didn’t seem to me to have much to do with what the symposium was supposed to be about, and I’m at a loss to see more than the most tangential connection between what Epstein said and how his talk was described in advance. I didn’t hear any argument “that the underlying linguistic problems should drive the analysis” or that trying “to tailor rules of interpretation to institutional settings” would “detract [from] understanding how and why language works.” I don’t go to a lot of law-school symposia—I’m just a simple country lawyer—so maybe it was naive of me to expect that the program that was actually presented would reasonably approximate what was described in advance.

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“Plain Meaning in Context: Can law survive its own language?”

That (i.e., the title of this post) was the title of an interesting-looking symposium that was held at the NYU Law School last month. I wish I’d known about it in advance; I would have gone. Papers from the symposium will be published in The Journal of Law and Liberty, in an issue due out in late summer.

For me, the most interesting parts of the symposium are the keynote address (by Richard Epstein) and the first panel (featuring Larry Solan, Peter Tiersma, and Scott Soames.)

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Is intensive textual analysis inherently textualist?

Michael Dorf writes that the opinion in FCC V. AT&T is “a bit too textualist for [his] taste”:

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Sex-change surgery and universal grammar

[This originally appeared on Language Log in February 2010, as a guest post.]

The United States Tax Court recently decided that payments for sex-reassignment surgery are deductible as medical expenses. Among the 15 judges, there were six separate opinions, with five of the judges dissenting. Most of the debate dealt with questions like whether Gender Identity Disorder is a “disease” (a key term in the statue) and if so whether sex-reassignment surgery, which doesn’t change the patient’s subjective sense of gender identity, constitutes a “treatment” for the disease (ditto).

Those are issues with interesting linguistic dimensions, but what I want to talk about here is a different aspect of the case: the dispute about how to interpret disjunction under negation—i.e., how to interpret expressions such as I don’t know anything about linguistics or tax law (with don’t signaling negation and or signaling disjunction).

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Interpretive communities and car carry

(This post takes off from the post about Stephen Mouritsen’s article, so read that one first.)

Having complied with the suggestion above, you will recall that Judge Frank Easterbook—one of textualism’s leading theoreticians—said this:

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March is becoming National Corpus-Analysis-in-Law Month

Coming soon in the Brigham Young University Law Review: “The Dictionary Is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning,” by Stephen Mouritsen.

Mouritsen, who is currently clerking on the Utah Supreme Court, has an MA in linguistics from BYU, with an emphasis on corpus linguistics. He studied under Mark Davies, who compiled the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the Corpus of Historical English. The appearance of his article at a time when blogospheric attention is being paid to the legal uses of corpus analysis (e.g., on at The Atlantic and on Language Log) is a nice bit of serendipity.

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Watson goes to law school

There’s a long article on the front page of the New York Times about the use of computational linguistics and artificial intelligence in legal practice—specifically, in analyzing truckloads of documents during litigation to separate out what’s relevant and identify factual patterns. (“Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software“)

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