Slocum and Gries on Judging Corpus Linguistics @PacificMcGeorge

Brian G. Slocum, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, and Stefan Gries, University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Linguistics, are publishing Judging Corpus Linguistics, in the Southern California Law Review (2020). Here is the abstract.

The practice of legal interpretation has long sought legitimization through devices that seek to distance interpretations from the personal predilections of judges. Most notably, with the rise of textualism, courts have habitually relied on dictionary definitions to provide word meanings that are external to a judge’s own intuitions. Similarly, some scholars and judges have recently argued that corpus linguistics can provide especially powerful and objective information to judges about the ordinary meanings of statutory and constitutional texts. For instance, in their influential article, Judging Ordinary Meaning, Thomas R. Lee and Stephen Mouritsen argue that courts should “import” into the law of interpretation computer-aided means (primarily, corpus analysis) of determining “the sense of a word or phrase that is most likely implicated in a given linguistic context.” In the view of Lee and Mouritsen, statutory interpretation is an “empirical question” (the authors assert this more than forty times), which makes it natural that courts should rely on scientifically-based interpretive sources such as corpus linguistics.

The potential judicial adoption of interdisciplinary knowledge and techniques from fields such as linguistics is intriguing, and the resulting discussions from such proposals will enhance both the theory and practice of legal interpretation. Nevertheless, anyone advocating for the judicial adoption of a significant and novel interpretive source bears the burden of offering a compelling explication of the interpretive source and its role within the structure of interpretation. This demonstration should establish that the new interpretive source offers some comparative advantage to existing interpretive sources and is feasible in the sense that judges can competently use it. The advocate must therefore offer a compelling theory of how the interpretive source fits into existing processes of interpretation and explain whether the new interpretive source requires a new way of viewing those processes. With corpus linguistics, some of the issues that should be addressed therefore include:

(1) how corpus linguistic analysis is relevant to some objective of interpretation currently identified by judges, such as the determination of ordinary meaning;

(2) whether corpus linguistics should displace long-standing interpretive sources, such as dictionaries and textual canons;

(3) the extent to which corpus linguistics can take account of the relevant context of a statutory provision;

(4) to what extent determining statutory meaning is an empirical endeavor (with or without corpus linguistics); and

(5) whether judges have both the technical ability to conduct competent corpus analyses and sufficient linguistic expertise to evaluate the raw data and make judgments of the kind made by trained linguists.

In this short essay, in the spirit of offering general concerns about corpus analysis and legal interpretation, we largely focus on Lee and Mouritsen’s efforts in addressing the above issues. We argue that Lee and Mouritsen’s conceptualization of the potential role for corpus linguistics within legal interpretation is inadequate and underestimates the difficulty of judicial adoption of corpus analysis methods. Corpus analysis can provide useful information about the functioning of language, but it is crucial to neither understate the role of context in determining statutory meaning nor overstate the potential contribution of corpus analysis to legal interpretation.

Download the article from SSRN at the link.