I filed another amicus brief in the Supreme Court last week that I regard as an example of using linguistics in legal argument. Although the brief contains no discussion of linguistics, it was enabled by the fact that I have learned, to a certain extent, how to think like a linguist.
The case is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, and it deals with employment discrimination. The linguistic issue that the brief deals with is the interpretation of prohibitions against discrimination “because of [the employee’s] age” or “because [the employee] has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” In particular, does the use of the word because in these provisions require the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was what’s known in the law as a “but for” cause of the adverse action? Or is it enough for the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was one of several motivations for the action, any one of which would have been sufficient on its own?
Included in Reading Law’s list of 57 canons of interpretation are seven that are described as “syntactic canons.” Of these, three are the most important:
Last-Antecedent Canon. A pronoun, relative pronoun, or demonstrative adjective generally refers to the nearest reasonable antecedent.
Series-Qualifier Canon. When there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies to the entire series.
Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon. When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent.
In this post I’m first going to look at these canons fit in with the existing law and then at whether they hang together as a coherent set of principles. And since the post is a long one, here’s the executive summary: First, the canons as formulated in Reading Law differ from the existing law in some important ways. Second, they don’t hang together as a coherent set of principles.
The Supreme Court has decided FCC v. AT&T, the most recent case in which I filed an amicus brief, which I wrote about here. The issue in the case is whether corporations are protected by the “personal privacy” exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, and the Court unanimously ruled that (as my brief had argued) they are not. The decision is available here.
In my unbiased opinion, the opinion was influenced by the brief in several respects.