Skip to content

Fall 2021 Seminar

Advanced Interpretation: Law and Language

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—including corpus linguistic analysis and the use of psycholinguistic surveys—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. The course materials include both support for and substantial critiques of the use of linguistic theory and tools. Our focus will be on questions of statutory interpretation.

The goal of the seminar is not to gain adherents to the enterprise of law and 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 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, in analyzing a canon of interpretation, or responding to a piece of scholarship.

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.

Note: This seminar will not meet each week; rather, there will be meetings over roughly six weeks on the following dates: September 9, 10, 23, 24; October 7, 8, 21, 22; November 4, 5, 18, 19.

Drop Deadline: September 10, 2021 by 11:59 pm EST