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Should Justices Turn to Dictionaries to Define Law?

  
  
  

Today's New York Times raises and interesting question: How much should justices rely on dictionaries to determine the detailed intent of the laws they review?

In a decision last week in a patent case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. determined the meaning of a federal law by consulting the usual legal matierals and five dictionaries. The Times reports that one of the words reviewed for meaning was "of."

The article points out that over the past two decades, the use of dictionaries by the Supreme Court has been "booming." It rightly raises the question that with so many dictionaries available with their own takes on words, would it be possible for someone to "cherry pick" the definition that best supports a particular argument. To date, justices have cited more than 120 different dictionaries.

Photo Credit Jovike resized 600

Photo Credit: Jovike

"It's easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuace that you're interested in," said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary. "I think that it's probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom. Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them."

One question that wasn't raised by the article, but is interesting to consider, is the moving line between "trusted dictionaries" and newer sources of information, such as Wikipedia. Could the day come when a justice cites Wikipedia, because it is a neutral blending of definitions from many sources into one provided an independent platform?

As an experiment, I looked up the word "trespass" in three different locations to see how close the definitions matched. Whittling them down to the core, here's how they stacked up:

  • Dictionary.com: "an unlawful act causing injury to the person, property or rights of another, committed with force or violence, actual or implied."
  • Merriam-Webster: "a violation of moral or social ethics; an unwarranted infringement; an unlawful act committed on the person, property or rights of another."
  • Wikipedia: Trespass to a person is "any act of such a nature as to excite an apprehension of battery." Trespass to chattels is "an intentional interference with the possession of personal property...proximately causing injury." Trespass to land is the "wrongful inteference with one's possessory rights in [real] property."

The bottom line is that even though the definitions are similar, there are indeed nuances that differ them, such as the use of the term "committed with force or violence" in the first definition.

What is also interesting to think about is how dictionaries continue to evolve, now including terms that weren't previously considered words at all. For example, in 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary added "OMG, LOL" and the "heart" emoticon. If the trend continues, one must ask how the words being filtered from our national dialogue into today's dictionaries might someday affect the way justices interpret a law. OMG, indeed.

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