Advanced Interpretation: Law and Language

Advanced Interpretation: Law and Language

Justice Thomas Lee
Fall 2020 seminar
Th, F 1:00pm - 3:00pm
2 classroom credits

Prerequisites: None

Exam Type: No Exam
Student performance will be assessed on the basis of class participation (10%) and a paper submitted at the end of the semester (90%).

This seminar invites students to develop, defend, and apply a framework for interpreting the language of law. The course materials highlight the basis for and means of the law's commitment to an inquiry into “ordinary meaning,” identify both theoretical and operational shortcomings in the inquiry, and open a dialogue about how to handle those shortcomings.

The dialogue is centered around a proposal to use linguistic theory and tools— principally from the field of corpus linguistics— to better refine the inquiry into the communicative content of the language of law. We will consider possible grounds for this refinement in both judicial opinions and emerging scholarship on the law's attempt to better assess ordinary meaning. Our focus will be on questions of statutory and constitutional interpretation.

The course materials include both support for and substantial critiques of the use of linguistic theory and tools. The goal of the seminar is not to gain adherents to the enterprise of law and corpus linguistics. It is to invite careful, critical thinking about how best to theorize and operationalize the inquiry into the communicative content of the language of law, and on what to do when we encounter indeterminacy. The course materials provide the perspective and background necessary for that endeavor— by presenting critiques of the corpus linguistic inquiry and highlighting strengths of competing frameworks.

Students will be invited to come to their own conclusions. They will be asked to do so (a) by participating in class discussion of the assigned scholarly material, as applied to a range of cases on statutory and constitutional interpretation; and (b) producing a paper that outlines, defends, and applies a framework of interpretation as applied to a reported or pending case. Suggested cases will be listed on the course Canvas page. Students are welcome to choose their own case, subject to instructor approval.

Student papers should be 7,000 words or less. Each paper should (a) propose and defend a theory of interpretation; and (b) identify the interpretive tools you find most helpful and apply those tools to resolving the interpretive issue in the case. In grading your papers, I will be assessing the level of sophistication, originality, and persuasiveness of your analysis. I will consider how well you engage with and respond to the material we covered in class— with specific focus on how you respond to arguments that may seem to cut against your proposed approach. You should not rely on any outside research or materials other than the material assigned for class and the opinions in the case (or briefs if it is a pending case).

Note: This seminar will meet on the following dates: 9/10, 9/17, 9/18, 10/1, 10/2, 10/15, 10/22, 10/23, 11/5, 11/6, 11/19, 11/20.

Subject Areas: Constitutional Law & Civil Rights, Legal & Political Theory