One of our several goals here at Language Log Plaza is to help non-linguists understand the ways language is important in most (probably all) of our lives. A quick look at the categories we write about is evidence of this–language and science, education, advertising, politics, psychology, media, humor, law, etc. Since the role of linguistics in the legal area is one of these, I thought I'd call attention to a recent amicus brief that a few linguists helped a lawyer construct (see also here).
Neal Goldfarb, at Tighe Patton Armstrong Teasdale in Washington DC, had a strong concern about the statutory interpretation of a case before the US Supreme Court, US v. Randy Edward Hayes, and so he asked a few linguists and cognitive scientists to help him with his brief. Interestingly, this brief doesn't take a position on the legal questions before the Court. Instead, it presents some linguistic insights that differ from the usual modes of legal argument in the hope that lawyers and judges might begin to pay more attention to linguistics.Interpretation begins with the text of a statute, which is usually interpreted according to its ordinary meaning. When the meaning is plain, the task can be easy enough, but when the meaning of the statute is less than clear or even ambiguous, careful analysis is needed in order to arrive at its ordinary meaning. Only after this stage is reached can the issues of legal interpretation begin. In its introduction this brief says of this case:
…although it may at first seem to present only a garden-variety question of statutory interpretation, upon examination it raises a surprising number of language-related issues, ranging from the use and misuse of dictionaries to the structure of concepts and from punctuation and paragraphing to the process by which language is understood.
Maybe this brief will stir up some interest.