Thursday, October 4, 2012

Defining Research

Black’s Law Dictionary is a staple of legal research. However, it is far from the only dictionary that a lawyer may need in practice. In the last Supreme Court term, 19 cases had a citation to a non-law dictionary.

Why would the Supreme Court refer to a dictionary so often? Unsurprisingly, they use dictionaries to determine what a particular word in a statute means. A fundamental canon of statutory construction is that “words are to be given their common meaning, unless they are technical terms or words of art.”1 This “ordinary meaning” needs to be from the time the law was passed, not the present day. This means that lawyers could need a dictionary (and preferably several) from any time period.

Looking at the last term, the case Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., 132 S.Ct. 1997 (2012), may have been the most dictionary-dependent case of the last term. It turned on the meaning of the word “interpreter” in 28 U.S.C. §1920. The party that won had several dictionaries on their side, while the loser primarily relied on a single one.

Overall, the most cited dictionary of the term was Springfield, Massachusetts’ own Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, an edition of which appeared in seven opinions. Interestingly, one commonly cited dictionary is not even American! The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) featured in several cases. Its reputation for quality, not to mention the number of words it has from older time periods, makes it a useful choice for statutory interpretation.

When doing legal research, don’t forget that there are also many subject-specific dictionaries that include terms of art. There are medical dictionaries like Black’s Medical Dictionary and Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. The publisher Barron’s has several dictionaries covering the financial world. Highly regulated, technical fields, like environmental law, also have dictionaries to help researchers deal with the mass of acronyms that characterize EPA publications.

It is easy to forget about dictionaries, as features like spell-check and thesauri are integrated with word processing software. Will courts one day quote the results of Microsoft Word’s "Synonyms" feature in an opinion? We’ll see, but I feel bad for whoever has to Bluebook that citation!

1Abner J. Mikva and Eric Lane, An Introduction to Statutory Interpretation and the Legislative Process 25 (1997).

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