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Judges Dig Deeper into Meaning of Everyday Words

Legal experts thumb through dictionaries for 'best' definitions

Supreme Court justices cited dictionary definitions 295 times in 225 opinions from 2000 to 2010.
Supreme Court justices cited dictionary definitions 295 times in 225 opinions from 2000 to 2010.

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Ted Landphair

Thirteen years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was embroiled in a sex scandal, famously answered a grand jury question by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A lot of people thought that was funny - or an awfully narrow parsing of a commonly understood word.  But seeking such ultra-careful interpretations of ordinary words in legal settings may be catching on.

In courtrooms across the country, judges themselves are digging deep into the meaning of everyday words.  As recently as June, even U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts consulted five dictionaries to divine the meaning of “of” for an opinion.

This was the most familiar book, used for oath-taking, in most U.S. courtrooms until a fatter one with lots of words came along.
This was the most familiar book, used for oath-taking, in most U.S. courtrooms until a fatter one with lots of words came along.

And judges in lower courts have thumbed through dictionaries to ponder the best definition of the words “now,” “any,” and “if.”

One problem with this is that there are many dictionaries - and thus many definitions of the same word.

J. Gordon Christy, a Mississippi College School of Law professor, grumbles that “We are treated to the truly absurd spectacle of august justices and judges arguing over which unreliable dictionary and which unreliable dictionary definition should be deemed authoritative.”

Justice Clarence Thomas has been one of the most frequent users of dictionaries on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Clarence Thomas has been one of the most frequent users of dictionaries on the U.S. Supreme Court.

A study by the Marquette Law Review, reported in the New York Times, found Supreme Court justices citing dictionary definitions 295 times in 225 opinions over the first 10 years of this century.  

And they used 120 different dictionaries to do it.

In 1995, for instance, Justice Clarence Thomas consulted dictionaries published in 1773, 1789, and 1796 to try to determine exactly what the framers of the U.S. Constitution meant by the word “commerce.”  

One of two things appears to be at work.  Either judges are choosing their words extra, extra carefully.  Or Noah Webster and other lexicographers, dead and alive, are helping to interpret the law.

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