Lawrence Solan, ‘Corpus Linguistics as a Method of Legal Interpretation: Some Progress, Some Questions’

Corpus linguistics is becoming a respected method of statutory and constitutional interpretation in the United States over the past decade, yet it has also generated a backlash from a group of scholars that engage in empirical work. This essay attempts to demonstrate both the contributions and the risks of using linguistic corpora as a primary tool in legal interpretation. Its legitimacy stems from the fact that courts routinely state that statutory terms, when not defined as a matter of law, are to be given their ordinary meaning. Judges have responded to this challenge, with the assistance of the linguistics community, by using corpora to determine which meanings are ordinary. However, legal analysts have not determined exactly what makes one meaning ordinary and another not ordinary. This gap has led to a level of disagreement in the field. Moreover, while linguists who engage in corpus linguistic analysis typically emphasize the importance of context, the legal application is peculiarly context-free, in keeping with legal philosophies that eschew reliance on reference to a law’s purpose and the intent of the legislature that enacted it. This move adds a political dimension to corpus analysis as a means of legal interpretation. Yet, the article concludes that by relying on a blend of general and specialized corpora, the legal system can substantially reduce the problem of contextualization, as some linguists and practitioners have already recognized.

Lawrence M Solan, Corpus Linguistics as a Method of Legal Interpretation: Some Progress, Some Questions, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique (2020). Published: 17 May 2020.

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