Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Justices Get Word about New Tool to Interpret Law

Judges and justices take oaths to uphold the law. But what if they have trouble interpreting it? Along with using the most common methods of precedent and research, Ohio Supreme Court justices recently learned about a relatively new and emerging method.

Contrived in 2011, corpus linguistics is comprised of large searchable databases of texts that generate real-world examples of how a word or phrase actually is used in a given context. Intrigued by the topic for more than a year, Justice Patrick DeWine helped coordinate a seminar to educate his fellow justices, other appellate judges, and judicial attorneys at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center.

“Trying to figure out what a word means in a specific context can sometimes be a very difficult problem, and the cases that we get on the Supreme Court generally aren’t the easiest ones,” said Justice Patrick DeWine.

The justice’s inquiries led him to an initiative at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. The brainchild of a first-year law student with a master’s degree in linguistics, the program has morphed into a movement spearheaded by the university.

“Whether we realize it or not, as lawyers and judges, we ask linguistic questions every single day,” said James Heilpern, a senior fellow at BYU, who taught the course, and helps run the school’s Law and Corpus Linguistics Project.

The database most commonly searched by people is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). It focuses on verbiage from the last 30 years, taking words used in unscripted television, popular magazines, newspapers, fiction books, and academic writing. Some searches of the 560-million-word collection can produce thousands of real-world samples of how a term or phrase is used.

“Those five genres provide a broad spectrum of English language to create a cross-section of how Americans are at least writing,” Heilpern said.

The purpose of COCA – or corpus linguistics’ other databases – is to provide more certainty about a statute or provision when it was drafted. For example, the verb “carry” – specifically referring to the expression “carry a firearm” – can convey multiple connotations. An online dictionary search may cloud understanding even more with the word’s 30 different meanings.

“Corpus linguistics can provide judges with empirical evidence about a word or a phrase’s ordinary meaning, or its relative clarity versus ambiguity,” Heilpern said. “A dictionary cannot tell you what the ordinary meaning of a phrase is. In fact, if you read the front matter of a dictionary, dictionaries even say that they can’t answer that question.”

Given the complexities of language and the evolution of words, jurists recognize legal analysis requires a multi-faceted approach. For them, corpus linguistics provides another means to do so.

“This is not something we’re going to use in every case, but in certain cases I think it’s something that can be helpful as part of a judge’s toolkit to get at those thorny issues of statutory interpretation,” Justice DeWine said.