Judges Dig Deeper into Meaning of Everyday Words
Thirteen years ago, U.S. President BillClinton, who was embroiled in a sex scandal, famously answered a grand juryquestion by saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is'is."
A lot of people thought that was funny - oran awfully narrow parsing of a commonly understood word. But seeking suchultra-careful interpretations of ordinary words in legal settings may becatching on.
In courtrooms across the country, judgesthemselves are digging deep into the meaning of everyday words. As recently asJune, even U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts consulted fivedictionaries to divine the meaning of "of" for an opinion
And judges in lower courts have thumbedthrough dictionaries to ponder the best definition of the words"now," "any," and "if."
One problem with this is that there aremany dictionaries - and thus many definitions of the same word.
J. Gordon Christy, a Mississippi CollegeSchool of Law professor, grumbles that "We are treated to the truly absurdspectacle of august justices and judges arguing over which unreliabledictionary and which unreliable dictionary definition should be deemedauthoritative."
Steve Pettaway, US Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas has been one of themost 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 dictionarydefinitions 295 times in 225 opinions over the first 10 years of this century.
And they used 120 different dictionaries todo it.
In 1995, for instance, Justice ClarenceThomas consulted dictionaries published in 1773, 1789, and 1796 to try todetermine 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 Websterand other lexicographers, dead and alive, are helping to interpret the law.