The Supreme Court is using dictionaries to interpret the Constitution. Both conservative justices, who believe the Constitution means today exactly what the Framers meant in the 18th century, and liberal ones, who see the Constitution as a living, breathing document changing with the times, are turning to dictionaries more than ever to interpret our laws: a new report shows that the justices have looked up almost 300 words or phrases in the past decade. Earlier this month, according to the New York Times, Chief Justice Roberts consulted five dictionaries for a single case.
Even though judicial dictionary look-ups are on the rise, the Court has never commented on how or why dictionary definitions play a role in Constitutional decisions. That’s further complicated by the fact that dictionaries aren’t designed to be legal authorities, or even authorities on language, though many people, including the justices of the Supreme Court, think of them that way. What dictionaries are, instead, are records of how some speakers and writers have used words. Dictionaries don’t include all the words there are, and except for an occasional usage note, they don’t tell us what to do with the words they do record. Although we often say, “The dictionary says…,” there are many dictionaries, and they don’t always agree.
Read the Complete Blog Post by Dennis Baron
Direct to NY Times Article, “Justices Turning More Frequently to Dictionary, and Not Just for Big Words”
by Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier and Samuel A. Thumma
Direct to Abstract and Full Text Blog Post and NY Times Article Discuss: “Scaling the Lexicon Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries in the Twenty-First Century”; Marquette Law Review
From the Abstract:
During Supreme Court Terms 2000–2001 through 2009–2010, the Justices have referenced dictionary definitions to define nearly 300 words or phrases. Yet the Court has never expressly explained the proper role and use of the dictionary in American jurisprudence. The Article studies the frequency and the approach the Justices have taken to citing dictionaries in the new century, and it considers the Court’s lack of a reasoned process for selecting or using dictionaries.