Lexicographers and the U.S. Supreme Court

June 15, 2011

A few days ago, we noticed an interesting story in the New York Times regarding the U.S. Supreme Court and the use of dictionaries. The Marquette Law Review, as cited by the article, released a study that found a significant rise in the number of times the Court cites to a dictionary. You can view the study on Westlaw at 94 MARQLR 77. The New York Times article talked to various law professors, lexicographers, and lawyers who looked with caution on this increase. One interesting quote is from a professor at Loyal Law School, commenting about how the press tends to influence dictionary definitions.

“It may also be a surprise to the Supreme Court justices who look to dictionaries as authorities in construing statutes,” Ms. Aprill wrote in the Arizona State Law Journal, “that in good measure they are interpreting law according to The New York Times.”

If you wanted to see U.S. Supreme Court cases that cite to a dictionary, try this search through the U.S. Supreme Court cases (SCT) on Westlaw:

american webster random-house black! oxford /5 dictionary

There are many ways to find definitions on Westlaw. We have the 9th edition of Black’s Law in the BLACKS database. There is also the Word and Phrases database (WORDS-PHRASES) which stores various definitions from cases.

If you wanted to search caselaw directly, there are two different searches that I like to use. First is the Words & Phrases field. If you put your search team in the WP() field, any cases that define that term in the headnote will appear. Another search is to try:

term word phrase +1 [search term]

Most courts will phrase a definition as “we define the term” or “the word [search term] means.” This search has been very helpful in finding definitions.