Category Archives: Interpretation versus comprehension

Some comments on Hessick on corpus linguistics (updated)

UP UNTIL NOW, the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation has gotten almost entirely good press—probably because almost all the press it’s gotten has come from its advocates. That situation has now changed, though, with the posting on SSRN of a paper by UNC law professor Carissa Hessick, who was one of the participants at the BYU law-and-corpus-linguistics symposium this past February. (Hessick has blogged about her paper at Prawfsblawg, here and here.)

The paper, “Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law” (pdf), argues that corpus linguistics “is not an appropriate tool” for interpreting statutes. Although it deals specifically with using corpus linguistics in interpreting criminal statutes, and Hessick’s concerns may not be as strong as to other areas of the law, much of her criticism would apply across the board. In this post I am going to discuss some of the issues that the paper raises, and if you’ve followed this blog before, you won’t be surprised to find out that I disagree with Hessick’s conclusion.

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Replying to McGinnis and Rappaport

As I’ve noted, John McGinnis and Mike Rappaport have responded to my post “The language of the law” is not actually a language. They disagree with what I said, and in this post I will return the favor.

McGinnis and Rappaport make two basic points. First, they say that I did not address their argument that The Language of the Law is a technical language and that as a result there is a gap in my analysis. Second, they dispute my argument that the rules of legal interpretation are not analogous to the cognitive processes that underlie comprehension.

The Language of the Law as a technical language

McGinnis and Rappaport accept the point in my earlier post that legal language—or The Language of the Law, to use their preferred term—is not a full-blown language comparable to Hindi or Pirahã. Their paper recognizes that The Language of the Law is “not wholly independent of ordinary language”, and they describe it as “an overlay on ordinary language.” And they don’t take issue with the statement by Peter Tiersma that I quoted: “If we isolate what is distinctive in legal English, leaving out features of ordinary speech, what remains is far too incomplete to function as a language.”

This is important because McGinnis and Rappaport also don’t disagree with my statement that the strong version of their analysis (meaning the version that assumes a “wide conception” of language) relies on their analogy between The Language of the Law and ordinary language. So in order to defend that portion of their argument, it’s essential for McGinnis and Rappaport to show that their analogy is valid. I don’t think they’ve done so.

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The language of the law, part 3: McGinnis and Rappaport respond

John McGinnis and Mike Rappaport have posted a jointly-written response to my post “The language of the law” is not actually a language. If this is an area that you’re interested in, you should read what they have to say.

I intend to prepare and post a response, but in the meantime, here is what they believe was the most significant gap in my argument:

Most significantly, Goldfarb fails to address our argument that the language of the law is a technical language.  There is little doubt that there are technical languages: many authors have recognized them and many authors have maintained that the language of the law is one such technical language.  Goldfarb, however, never explains how he would account for such languages.  To be persuasive, he must provide such an account and then explain why our arguments about the language of the law do not follow under his account.

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Comprehension, ordinary meaning, and linguistics

In my first language-of-the-law post the other day, I talked about the fact that the words interpret and interpretation are polysemous—they can be used in multiple different ways that are related to one another: they can be used to refer both to the conscious process of deliberation that underlies legal interpretation and to the automatic and effortless cognitive processes that underlie the comprehension of utterances and texts. And I said that although it’s not unusual to use those word in both ways, in the context of discussing legal interpretation the can be to obscure the fact that the processes differ. As a result, I prefer to use interpret and its derivatives only with respect to legal interpretation, and to use the words comprehend and comprehension to refer to the cognitive processes by which utterances and texts are understood.

It occurred to me that this would provide a good lead for me to discuss some of the assumptions that underlie my efforts to apply linguistics to legal interpretation. I’m going to do that now, and I’m going to do it by drawing on (and adapting) something that I wrote as part of a book proposal.

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More on The Language of the Law

Over at Volokh Conspiracy, Will Baude has commented on my post about the language of the law. Will and his co-author Steve Sachs recently had a paper titled “The Law of Interpretation” published as a lead article in the Harvard Law Review. They have a view of the rules of legal interpretation that differs from McGinnis and Rappaport’s and is fairly similar to mine:

In that piece, we argue that some interpretive rules are linguistic ones, elements of our written language, but others, maybe many, are legal ones. Rather than assimilating them to rules of language, we analogize them to other legal defaults, many of which are unwritten, such as the rules for mens rea or accomplice liability in criminal statutes. Seeing such rules as law, not language, avoids critiques like Goldfarb’s that legal rules don’t operate in the way that he says that languages generally operate.

However, Baude sees his (and Sachs’s) conception of legal rules as differing somewhat from my description of legal interpretation as process of explicit reasoning:

I take [Goldfarb’s] point about how introspection might differ for language and for law, but we are not committed to the view that all legal interpretive rules entail a “deliberative process by which the interpreter consciously thinks about how the utter­ance or text should be understood.” Trained lawyers may well use the mens rea canon without really thinking about it. And we affirmatively disagree with the suggestion legal interpretive rules must be “promulgated explicitly by actors vested with institutional authority.” We think such rules can, and often do, exist as part of the general common law backdrops of our legal system — authoritative rules of custom that have never been explicitly promulgated by any lawmaker in particular.

I’ll deal with these points in reverse order.

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“The language of the law” is not actually a language

THE NATURE OF LEGAL LANGUAGE has been a recurring subject of discussion, within applied linguistics and (U.S.) legal academia. The latest contribution to that discussion is a recently-posted draft paper by John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport, titled The Constitution and the Language of the Law. (h/t Legal Theory Blog)

McGinnis and Rappaport are the primary advocates of an approach to constitutional interpretation known as original-methods originalism, under which courts today are to apply the interpretive methods that prevailed at the time of the framing (pdf). Their new paper argues that original-methods originalism is supported by the fact that (as they see it), the Constitution is written in “the language of the law.”

Although Larry Solum, of Legal Theory Blog, calls the paper “important and brilliant,” I’m afraid that I find its primary argument to be pretty seriously flawed. [UPDATE: McGinnis and Rappaport have responded to this post, and I have replied to their response.]

I’m going to talk here about two related aspects of the paper that I think are problematic. One is its treatment of “the language of the law” (a phrase that I will henceforth capitalize whenever I use it in the way that McGinnis and Rappaport do). McGinnis and Rappaport come close to treating The Language of the Law as a full-blown language on the order of French and Japanese, which I don’t think is justified by the facts. The other major problem that I see lies in the analogy that the paper draws between the rules of legal interpretation and what it calls the “interpretive rules” of ordinary language (which are better described as the cognitive processes involved in the comprehension of utterances and texts). This analogy, which plays a key role in McGinnis and Rappaport’s argument, is invalid because each of the things that they are analogizing is fundamentally dissimilar from the other.

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