Corpus-based judicial opinions

« previous post | next post »

Gordon Smith, "Michigan Supreme Court Embraces Corpus Linguistics", The Conglomerate 6/28/2016:

In the case of People v. Harris, the Michigan Supreme Court became the first state supreme court in the United States to embrace corpus linguistics. (I have written here about Justice Thomas Lee's concurrence in the Utah Supreme Court's Rasabout case, which is cited in this Michigan opinion.) The consolidated cases relate to the "Disclosures by Law Enforcement Officers Act" (DLEOA), which bars the use in a subsequent criminal proceeding of all "information" provided by a law enforcement officer under threat of any employment sanction. While the act does not distinguish between true and false statements, the court used corpus analysis to investigate whether "information" must be true. The majority concludes, "false or inaccurate information cannot be used against a law enforcement officer in subsequent criminal proceedings. To hold otherwise would defeat the Legislature's stated intent…."

Justice Stephen Markman's dissenting opinion also cites corpus-based usage statistics:

The majority relies on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), a truly remarkable and comprehensive source of ordinary English language usage compiled by linguistic scholars at Brigham Young University, in particular Professor Mark Davies. The COCA, available at (accessed June 7, 2016), is an online "resource [that can be used by courts] for assessing the ordinary meaning of a statutory term." State v Rasabout, 2015 Utah 72, ¶ 72; 356 P3d 1258 (2015) (Lee, A.C.J., concurring in part) (assessing with an impressive thoroughness, in ¶¶ 40-134, the strengths and limitations of using a corpus to facilitate the interpretive processes of the judiciary). By using the COCA, "we can access large bodies of real-world language to see how particular words or phrases are actually used in written or spoken English." Id. at ¶ 57. However, notwithstanding the majority's invocation of the COCA, I believe that the COCA actually supports the proposition set forth in this dissent that the common and most reasonable understanding of the term "information" excludes false statements.

Prof. Smith notes:

Here we see judges struggling with the rules of application under corpus analysis, an issue that was a central topic of conversation in the recent Conference on Corpus Linguistics held at BYU. We clearly have a long way to go before corpus analysis is regularized in judicial proceedings, but this case represents an nice step forward, where both majority and dissenting justices agree that corpus linguistics could inform their interpretation of the statute.

[h/t Stephen Mouritsen]



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    The burning question is whether the court's arthrous references to "the COCA" establish a binding legal precedent.

  2. tangent said,

    July 2, 2016 @ 10:12 pm

    By the majority reading, the law gives criminal officers no reason to tell the truth. If they tell the truth, they face employment sanctions. If they lie and get away with it, they don't. In either case, their statements are not usable in a criminal case. Lying wins.

    Can that have been the legislature's intent?

    If I were prosecuting these officers after this decision, I'd try to use not the information(?) they gave but the speech act of lying.

  3. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    "He gave me information that X would be at Y at n o'clock; that information turned out to be false." "The contract/paper/bible contains inaccurate information."

RSS feed for comments on this post