Category Archives: Judges and justices

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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SCOTUS cites CGEL (props to Justice Gorsuch and the Supreme Court Library)

When grammatical questions come up in cases, the lawyers and judges will want to support their arguments and analyses with citations to books about grammar. Most of the time, they cite books intended for a general audience, such as the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, The Elements of Grammar, Strunk & White, and various books by Bryan Garner; and books intended for lawyers, such as The Grammar and Writing Handbook for Lawyers and (again) various books by Bryan Garner.

Unfortunately, none of those books gives an adequate description of English grammar, which is a subject that is much more complex than most people realize. If you’re looking for a book that can speak about the subject reliably and with authority, the leading candidates are two books that are both known by the initials CGEL.

One is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), whose main co-authors are Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. The other is the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. If you’re dubious about my statement regarding the complexity of English grammar, you should note that both of these books are enormous: the text of Huddleston & Pullum exceeds 1,700 pages, and Quirk et al.’s exceeds 1,600 pages. If you ever have occasion to hold a copy of either book in your hands, be careful not to drop it on your toes.

Up until today, Huddleston & Pullum had been cited by U.S. courts 24 times, and Quirk et al., 12 times. The courts in question included the federal courts of appeals for the Fifth and Sixth Circuits and the supreme courts of Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. But not the U.S. Supreme Court.

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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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Responding further to Hessick on corpus linguistics (The first in a series)

Carissa Hessick has recently posted a near-final version of her forthcoming article Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law, which will appear in  a special issue of the B.Y.U. Law Review devoted to the papers that were presented at the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference at Brigham Young about a year ago. Like the draft that Hessick posted in September, the new version argues against the use of corpus linguistics in statutory interpretation. And although the article deals specifically with the use of corpus linguistics in criminal cases, Hessick acknowledges that some of her criticisms may apply more broadly.

I blogged about the previous draft, outlining some of my disagreements with Hessick’s position, and also offered some comments in response to her trio of posts about corpus linguistics at PrawfsBlawg (link, link, link). My disagreements apply equally to the revised version.

In this post, I’ll have some further things to say about Hessick’s portrayal of corpus linguistics as “a radical break from current interpretive theories.” The targets of that claim are Stephen Mouritsen and Utah Supreme Court Justice Lee. But as I’ll discuss, Mouritsen disputes Hessick’s reading of both his individual work and the work he and Lee have done together. (Justice Lee has so far maintained radio silence; perhaps he and Mouritsen will respond to Hessick in their forthcoming article in the Yale Law Journal [draft].) And in two or three posts that will follow this one, I’ll address some of the other aspects of Hessick’s argument. (Part 2 is here.)

HESSICK’S THESIS HASN’T CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY between her original draft and the revised version. So the new draft, like the previous one, paints what I believe is an inaccurate picture of how corpus linguistics relates to statutory interpretation, and of the views and goals of corpus linguistics’s proponents.

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Voting rights and the language of causation

Last week the Supreme Court heard Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, a big voting-rights case that—as I only recently learned—involves a statute raising a linguistic issue similar to the one I argued in my amicus brief in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. The statute in each case makes it illegal to take certain action if  the action is taken for a prohibited reason. In Husted, the statute prohibits states from removing people from the list of eligible voters “solely by reason of a failure to vote.” In Nassar, it prohibited employers from discriminating against any employee “because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [the statute], or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [the statute].”

The linguistic issue that I want to talk about is whether the boldfaced language in each statute has the effect of requiring “but for” causation. As the lawyers reading this will know, a “but for” cause is a cause without which (i.e., but for which) the result in question would not have occurred. In philosophy, but-for causes are referred to as “necessary causes,” and they are distinguished from “sufficient causes,” which are causes that would be sufficient to bring about the result, but that may co-occur with other sufficient causes.

My amicus brief in Nassar (discussed here and here) challenged the Supreme Court’s earlier holding in Gross v. FBL Financial Services that under a statute prohibiting discrimination “because of” an employee’s age, plaintiffs are required to prove that their age was a but-for cause of the employer’s action against them. The Court in Gross had relied mainly on dictionary definitions (which didn’t actually address the issue, but never mind that), as well as on cases in that had held but-for causation to be required by the various other expressions, including by reason of. My brief argued that Gross was incorrect and that its error should not be extended to the different statute that was at issue in Nassar. I knew that the odds were against my argument being accepted by a majority of the justices, but I figured that at a minimum, the dissenters would pick up on it. As things turned out, that was, shall we say, overoptimistic on my part. The brief went nowhere.

And now along comes Husted, which gives me an excuse opportunity to bring up this issue again.

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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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Corpus linguistics coming to the Sixth Circuit bench? (Plus LAWnCorpusLing roundup)

Adam Liptak reports in the New York Times that President Trump will announce a number of nominations to the lower federal courts, and that one of them is Justice Joan L. Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court, who will be nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

That caught my eye, because in June 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court became the first state supreme court in the country to expressly approve the use of corpus linguistics in statutory interpretation. Continue reading