Category Archives: Words & phrases

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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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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More on the relevance of frequency data: Responding to Steinberg

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.

I beg to differ.

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Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics

At the end of my previous post discussing Carissa Hessick’s paper “Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law,” I said that I would follow up with another post “making the affirmative case for the relevance of frequency data in determining ordinary meaning.” This is that post.

Given that subject, you might wonder why I’ve titled this post “Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics.” The answer is that corpus linguistics has not only provided a methodology for investigating meaning, it has also generated important insights about word meaning. (That was the subject of the paper I presented at the BYU symposium in February, which will be published, along with the other papers from the symposium, in a special issue of the BYU Law Review.) I’ll draw on those insights when I talk about frequency analysis, and I thought it would be helpful to make them explicit.

THERE ARE A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT WAYS to think about word meanings. One of them is the way that I see as characteristic of how lawyers and judges tend to think: the meaning of a word is more or less equated with its dictionary definition, and then the definition is in effect read into the statute. If you’ve read a lot of cases, you’ll probably recognize the pattern:

The issue here is what “flood” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines “flood” to mean, “a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.” Therefore, the plaintiffs must show that the water in their basement resulted from a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.

Under this approach, the dictionary entry is treated as if what it defines is the concept flood rather than the word flood. The dictionary entry is being used as stating the conditions determining whether a particular instance of water on the ground qualifies as a flood. Considering the role that dictionaries have come to play in legal interpretation, it is no small irony that many lexicographers would say that the definitions they write aren’t intended to serve that purpose.

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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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The semantics of sleeping in railway stations

 

“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,” 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 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 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.” 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 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 guy 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 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.’

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