“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.)

Epstein’s address was entitled “Plain Meaning Mostly, Right Mostly: A Modest Theory of Interpretivism.” Here’s the summary from the symposium website:

His address will discuss the attitudes toward interpretation that should be taken with constitutional, statutory and contractual materials and argue that the underlying linguistic problems should drive the analysis, and that efforts to tailor rules of interpretation to institutional settings may be useful dramatic flourishes, but in the end only detract for understanding how and why language works.

Epstein is a big name in a variety of areas, including torts and property rights, but I wasn’t previously aware of his having any particular interest in issues of interpretation. He’s a provocative thinker and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say.

Solan, Tiersma, and Soames are all heavily involved in law-and-language issues. Solan and Tiersma are among the small handful of law professors with PhD.s in linguistics, and Soames comes at law-and-language from philosophy. Here’s the description of their panel:

In our introductory panel, discussion will be focused on the broad question: when does plain meaning break down as a concept? Most lawyers and judges agree that the plain meaning of a text can do most, if not all of the interpretive work most of the time. Thus, another question is: why does plain meaning work most of the time? Finally, panelists will be encouraged to provide suggestions for how legal practice can be improved to avoid these interpretive dilemmas

Tiersma’s paper is the only one available online as far as I can tell. It’s entitled, “The Rule of Text: Is it Possible to Govern Using (Only) Statutes?” (h/t Legal Theory Blog.) I’ve only had a chance to skim it quickly, but it looks interesting. I hope to have more to say about it shortly.

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