The Judges and Mr Webster

The Judges and Mr Webster

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) must surely be considered an august and intelligent body. It might come as a surprise, then, to realize how many times they are unable to interpret the law without referring to common dictionaries to grapple with the meanings of some very common words. [Some of you might remember former president Bill Clinton asking at a deposition for a definition of the word ‘is’.]

In May of this year, the justices cited dictionaries in eight separate cases to determine what legislators meant when crafting statutes. In particular, their references to the dictionary in May included such words as ‘prevent’, ‘delay’, and ‘report. Probably the most unusual was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr puzzling over the meaning of a federal law using five dictionaries. One of the words that troubled him was the exact meaning of the word ‘of’.

Over the years, it appears the justices have looked up some very common words (‘now’, ‘also’, ‘any’, ‘if’) and a few you would expect them to know better than anyone – ‘attorney’ and ‘common law’. Even the editor of the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary thinks this is wrong. Jesse Sheidlower says that “it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom.” Sheidlower continues that “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.”

Apparently the trend of justices referring to dictionaries – and then arguing over which dictionary and which definition is authoritative – has seen an increase in recent decades. Starting in 2000, there have been 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions where SCOTUS used dictionaries to reach their conclusions. During their long careers, famous SCOTUS justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, Benjamin N Cardozo, Louis D Brandeis, and Learned Hand never turned to dictionaries in their deliberations.

Since the SCOTUS justices have cited some 120 dictionaries, there is the suggestion that they have cherry-picked something that suited their own prejudices.

It’s not known if this practice is prevalent in Canada, but the findings of courts in this land often make one wonder what judges were thinking. Perhaps they have sometimes been misled by reading the wrong dictionaries.

Posted by Paul Harris