Category Archives: Artis v. District of Columbia

Artis v. District of Columbia, part 2: Units of meaning and dictionary definitions

Sometimes, it’s immediately obvious from the opinions that a case raises questions about interpretation that are interesting, important, or both. Smith v. United States, in which the question was whether trading a handgun for drugs amounts to “using” it, is a classic example. At first glance, the Supreme Court’s decision in Artis v. District of Columbia  doesn’t seem to be in that category. It doesn’t offer interesting linguistic issues that call attention to themselves, except for someone who is familiar with the work of the linguist John Sinclair and the lexicographer Patrick Hanks. But with some digging, Artis yields some issues that I think are  interesting and significant, having to do with new approaches to analyzing questions of word meaning and with how not to use dictionaries.

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#GorsuchDictionaries: Into the lexicographic weeds (updated, and updated again)

Note: If you’re coming back to this post after having read it already, be sure to note the additional update I’ve added, which comes right after the discussion that dates the W2 definition back to 1934.

A new hashtag popped up last week, #GorsuchStyle, devoted to spoofing Justice Gorsuch’s writing style, or at least the style that is on display in the opening sentences of his dissenting opinion in  Artis v. District of Columbia (pdf): “Chesterton reminds us not to clear away a fence just because we cannot see its point. Even if a fence doesn’t seem to have a reason, sometimes all that means is we need to look more carefully for the reason it was built in the first place.”

I mention that, not because this post will be about Gorsuch’s writing style (it won’t), but because I’m not above a little clickbait-y coattail-riding. It’s not gratuitous clickbait, mind you. This post is about Gorsuch’s dissent in Artis. And it remains to be seen whether it’s effective clickbait. Part of me thinks that if your title includes the word lexicographic, maybe you’re doing clickbait wrong. On the other hand, #AppellateTwitter likes dictionaries, so maybe not.

What this post will be about is Gorsuch’s choice of dictionaries to cite in his Artis dissent. As the title suggests, it will be heavy on lexicography, but it will also touch on what that choice says about whether Gorsuch is a snoot, like his predecessor was, and if so whether that ought to play a role in his decision about what dictionaries to cite. I also plan on doing a separate post to talk about the contrasting approaches to word meaning that are on display in Artis, both of them resonating, though in opposite ways, with what I’ve written about that subject (link, link).

Update: The second post can be found here.

As you may have gathered know if you’re familiar with some of the things I’ve written about word meaning, I’m not a big fan of the central role that dictionaries play in the way lawyers, judges, and legal scholars deal with issues of word meaning. For this post, though, I’ll put that dissatisfaction aside, and will treat the use of dictionaries as perfectly appropriate interpretive tools.

THE ISSUE of which dictionary to use is a recurring one in the academic literature about judges’ use of dictionaries. It’s usually discussed under the rubric of “dictionary shopping”—the practice of looking for the definitions that are most supportive of the result you want to reach. That practice is of course the norm for lawyers arguing cases, but it’s problematic for judges or legal scholars, who aren’t supposed to start out with a preferred outcome and then reason backward to the arguments that can support it. However, there is at least one circumstance in which selectiveness about the dictionaries that one cites can be appropriate: when the purpose of citing the dictionary is merely to show that a particular reading of the word in question is possible. And in fact that was Gorsuch’s purpose in relying on the definitions he cited; he was arguing that the statute was ambiguous.

Nevertheless, Gorsuch’s dictionary choices in Artis are subject to some significant criticisms in terms of what might be called lexicographic relevance; the definitions he relies on don’t necessarily shed much light on the meaning of the statutory language that was in dispute. And in that respect, the dissent is not the first time that judges have gone lexicographically astray.

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