After initially declaring that I wouldn’t be posting about the phrase keep arms because I had nothing interesting to say about it, and then declaring that upon further reflection I did have something interesting to say, I’ve realized after drafting a post discussing the phrase that I was right the first time.
So when “Corpora and the Second Amendment: ‘keep arms’” doesn’t appear, that’s why.
The B.Y.U. Law Review has published its special issue devoted to the papers presented at the 2017 law-and-corpus-linguistics conference hosted by the B.Y.U. Law School.
One of the papers in the volume is mine: “A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics” (abstract; pdf), which discusses a new way of thinking about the issue of word meaning that has developed as a result of the use of corpus linguistics in lexicography. A condensed version of that discussion (very condensed) can be found in my post Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics.
Of the other papers, there are three that I think will be of the most interest to readers (whether judges, lawyers, or legal academics) who want to learn more about what role corpus linguistics can play in legal interpretation. Two of those papers view the use of corpus linguistics positively; the other is critical of it.
I’m posting this because I’ve discovered a mistake in my previous post, #GorsuchDictionaries: Into the lexicographic weeds. I’ve added a correction to the post, but since a lot of people have already seen the original version (well, a lot by our standards), I wanted to take the extra step of putting up this separate post, noting the correction.
Set out below is the relevant part of the original post, as corrected.
THUS, THE TWO DEFINITIONS cited by the dissent preceded the enactment of the supplemental-jurisdiction statute in 1990 by, respectively 78 years and 56 years. That fact alone has to make one wonder whether they accurately reflected how toll was used by the time 1990 came along.
And there are additional reasons for doubting the continuing adequacy of the dictionaries Gorsuch cites. First, the use of toll with regard to statutes of limitations earlier than 1934 may have been infrequent. It appears (from a Westlaw search) that before 1934, toll, tolls, toll, or tolling was used within 35 words of limitations in only eleven cases, of which only two were from before 1912. (There were five such cases in 1934 and one in 1912, but I assume that by those dates the definitions had already been finalized.) In contrast, when the same search is conducted for the period 1980 through 1989, it returns 642 cases
[Update: The previous paragraph turns out to be incorrect—the low number of hits that I was getting was due to the way I was doing the date-range filtering. When I fixed that problem, the search results didn’t give me reason to think there was a major change in the way toll was used after W2 was published. However, they do raise the question whether the W2 definition accurately reflected the range of early/mid-20th century usage. I’ll explain the basis for that statement in my second post about Artis, which I’m currently working on. ¶ My apologies for the mistake.]
In a comment on one of Carissa Hessick’s posts about corpus linguistics at Prawfsblawg, Asher Steinberg expressed the view that relying on frequency data in deciding issues of ordinary meaning is misguided. (Steinberg blogs at The Narrowest Grounds, where he frequently writes intelligently about statutory interpretation.) Shortly after that, I posted Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics here, in which I explained why I believe that frequency data can in fact be relevant in doing legal interpretation. And that post prompted a long comment by Steinberg, elaborating on his objection to using frequency data in legal interpretation.
Steinberg fears that if the courts were to draw on corpus linguistics in the way I that I advocate, statutory interpretation would “fall into fundamental error[.]”His point of departure is my analysis of the corpus data regarding the issue raised by Muscarello v. United States—whether driving somewhere with a gun in the trunk or glove compartment counts as carrying a firearm. (My conclusions are briefly summarized in the post Steinberg comments on; for the full analysis, see my forthcoming article A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics (henceforth, A Lawyer’s Introduction)) Steinberg argues that frequency data—or at least the kind of frequency data that my analysis is based on— is inherently unreliable as evidence of ordinary meaning.
Even though we place great trust in a judge’s discernment, a “judge’s confidence in her linguistic intuition may be misplaced. . . . Though the human language faculty is very good at assessing which meanings are linguistically permissible in a given context, human intuition is less successful in selecting the most common meaning or common understanding.” Stephen C. Mouritsen, Hard Cases and Hard Data: Assessing Corpus Linguistics as an Empirical Path to Plain Meaning, 13 Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 156, 160–61 (2012) [hereinafter Mouritsen, Hard Cases]. When terms are to “be interpreted according to their ordinary meaning, they implicate a set of empirical questions, many of which are amenable to different types of linguistic analysis. . . . [I]n the field of corpus linguistics, scholars . . . determine . . . those meanings that are consistent with common usage,” or “the term’s ordinary or most frequent meaning” based on empirical data rather than personal intuition. Id. at 161.
These tools for empirical analysis are readily available to lawyers and should be used when appropriate. See, e.g., Rasabout, 2015 UT 72, ¶¶ 57–134, (Lee, J., concurring); In re Adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶¶ 86–105, 266 P.3d 702 (Lee, A.C.J., concurring); Brief for the Project On Government Oversight et al. as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioners, FCC v. AT&T, Inc., 562 U.S. 397 (2011) (No. 09-1279) [link – NG]; 2017 BYU Law Review Symposium, Law & Corpus Linguistics, 2017 B.Y.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming), http://lawcorpus.byu.edu/; Neal Goldfarb, Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics, 2017 B.Y.U. L. REV. (forthcoming), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2907485; Stephen C. Mouritsen, The Dictionary is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning, 2010 B.Y.U. L. REV. 1915; Mouritsen, Hard Cases, supra; Daniel Ortner, The Merciful Corpus: The Rule of Lenity, Ambiguity and Corpus Linguistics, 25 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 101 (2016); James C. Phillips, Daniel Ortner, & Thomas Lee, Corpus Linguistics & Original Public Meaning: A New Tool to Make Originalism More Empirical, 126 Yale L.J. Forum 20 (2016); Neal Goldfarb, LAWN LINGUISTICS, https://lawnlinguistics.com/ (last visited May 16, 2017) (discussing many contemporary issues regarding corpus linguistics and the law and providing links to various online tools and resources).
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.
From Richard Grunberger, The 12-year Reich: A Social History Of Nazi Germany 1933-1945 (1971; Da Capo reprint 1995):
Techniques for promoting Nazi newspapers are best illustrated by Julius Streicher’s own local daily, the Fränkische Tageszeitung, which sent this circular to all readers reluctant to renew their subscriptions:
Your intention expresses a very peculiar attitude towards our paper, which is an official organ of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, and we hope that you realize this. Our paper certainly deserves the support of every German. We shall continue to forward copies of it to you, and hope that you will not want to expose yourself to unfortunate consequences in the case of cancellation.
“I really, really like the work in Congress, I really do, but I love my family more. People may try to make it more than that, but it’s really that simple,” [Jason] Chaffetz said on MSNBC. “I just turned 50. I’m sleeping on a cot in my office.”
Chaffetz on No 2018 Run: ‘I Just Turned 50, I’m Sleeping on a Cot in My Office,’ Talking Points Memo xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx
Everyone familiar with the academic literature on statutory interpretation is aware of the no-vehicles-in-the-park hypothetical. It was formulated by the legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart to illustrate the argument that the words in which a law is written must have “a core of settled meaning”—a set of “standard instance[s] in which no doubts are felt about [the law’s] application”—but will also have “a penumbra of debatable cases in which words are neither obviously applicable nor obviously ruled out.” But Harvard law professor Lon Fuller denied the existence of any core area in which the law’s applicability was clear; for Fuller, the law’s applicability turned not on linguistic semantics but on the law’s purpose. Thus, he asked whether, under the hypothesized prohibition against vehicles in the park, “mount[ing] on a pedestal in the park a truck used in World War II…in perfect working order” would fall within the law’s core or its periphery.
Less well known than Hart’s thought experiment is a separate hypothetical offered by Fuller to support his challenge to Hart. Fuller posits a law making it a misdemeanor “to sleep in any railway station.” He then supposes that two people have been arrested for violating this law: one who dozed off while waiting for a train, and another “who had brought a blanket and pillow to the station and had obviously settled himself down for the night[,]” but who had been arrested before he fell asleep. “Which of these cases,” Fuller asked, “presents the ‘standard instance’ of the word ‘sleep’?” And would it be faithful to the law to say that the law had been violated by the second person but not the first?
The hypothetical is thought-provoking because applying what is assumed to be the literal meaning of the law—that it prohibits being asleep in a railway station—would yield a conclusion that seems nonsensical: that the law was violated by the dozing passenger but not by the person who was bedded down but still awake. The hypothetical has been discussed by some very smart legal scholars and philosophers over the years, including Kent Greenawalt, Fred Schauer, John Manning, Scott Soames, and Andrei Marmor, and with few exceptions (mainly the linguist Robyn Carston) they have accepted that assumption. Schauer put it as well as anyone: “Sleep is a physiological state, and as a matter of physiology Fuller’s businessman was sleeping. Period.”
But in fact (you can guess where this is going, can’t you?), the assumption’s validity is doubtful at best. It is entirely consistent with actual usage to use sleep in a railway station to mean ‘use a railway station as a place to sleep’ rather than ‘be asleep in a railway station.’
No linguistics in this post, just law. The post is about a legal-ethics complaint that I’ve filed with the District of Columbia Bar against three lawyers in the Office of White House Counsel, including White House Counsel Don McGahn.
The complaint relates to the episode in March when, two days after the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearing with Jim Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, Rep. Devin Nunes (chairman of the Committee) held an impromptu press conference at which he breathlessly announced that “he had been shown evidence that ‘on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.'” (NYT [watch video]; press release.) Nunes then rushed to the White House to present this information to the president, who said that it “somewhat” vindicated his claim that President Obama had wiretapped him. Nunes was widely seen at the time as carrying water for Trump, and that view was confirmed when it was reported that the information in question had been provided to Nunes by the White House.
It was later reported that two lawyers in the Office of White Counsel had been involved in disclosing the information to Nunes. One of those lawyers, Michael Ellis, had until only a few weeks earlier been the House Intelligence Committee’s general counsel. Ellis is the primary target of the complaint, and the principal allegation against him is that his reported actions violated violated legal ethics that arose because of his previous work the House Committee’s lawyer.
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?