"Lawyer lawsuits"?

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If you listened to the U.S. Senate proceedings yesterday, you may have been puzzled — as I was — by Jay Sekulow's discussion of "lawyer lawsuits":

And by the way,
lawyer lawsuits?
lawyer lawsuits?
We're talking about the impeachment of a president of the United States,
duly elected.
And the members,
the managers,
are complaining about
lawyer lawsuits?
The consitution allows
lawyer lawsuits.
It's disrespecting the constitution of the United States
to even say that in this chamber —
lawyer lawsuits!

His peroration, after a minute or so about Executive Privilege:

The constitution.
A dangerous moment for America
when an impeachment of a president of the United States
is being rushed through
because of lawyer lawsuits.
The constitution allows it
if necessary, the constitution demands it
if necessary.

Several news stories later explained the mystery, e.g. "An embarrassing moment for Trump’s legal team", WaPo 1/21/2020:

Appearing shortly after 6 p.m. Eastern time on the Senate floor, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Jay Sekulow offered an indignant rebuke of the Democrats’ impeachment managers. What he was so incensed about: that they had allegedly referred to “lawyer lawsuits” in prosecuting the case against Trump. […]

Sekulow added that it was “a dangerous moment for America when an impeachment of a president of the United States is being rushed through because of lawyer lawsuits. The Constitution allows it, if necessary. The Constitution demands it, if necessary.”

There was one problem: Sekulow was referring to a quote that doesn’t appear to exist. He appeared to have badly misunderstood what one of the Democratic impeachment managers said.

Shortly prior, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) laid out her case against Trump. In the course of it, she referred to “FOIA lawsuits” — not “lawyer lawsuits” — referring to the Freedom of Information Act.

Here's the relevant piece of Sekulow's testimony — the excerpt above starts at 2:52:

The cited story notes that the misunderstanding is even odder given the full context of Demings' remarks:

And it wasn’t just one wayward acronym that could explain the misunderstanding; Demings’s remarks repeatedly referenced the law.

“The president’s lawyers may suggest that the House should sought — that this House should have sought these materials in court, or awaited further lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act, a.k.a. FOIA lawsuits,” Demings said. “Any such suggestion is meritless.”

Apparently the White House is not admitting any error:

What’s even more remarkable about the flap is that the White House actually stood by Sekulow’s allegation. Asked about the remark by reporters later in the night, White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland reportedly walked away, only to return a while later — apparently after checking? — and suggest that Sekulow had not erred.

“When you read the transcript, it says ‘lawyer lawsuit,’ ” he said.

This appears to be false, unless he means a transcript of Mr. Sekulow's remarks:

It’s not clear to what transcript Ueland is referring, but the Federal Document Clearing House transcript includes no references to “lawyer lawsuits” besides Sekulow’s. And video of Demings’s remarks are clear that she did, in fact, say “FOIA lawsuits” both times. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) also referred to “FOIA lawsuits” shortly before 2 p.m. — hours before Sekulow’s retort. There are no other references in the transcript to “lawsuits” that could even have been reasonably mistaken for “lawyer lawsuits.”

The two references in Representative Demings' remarks are here and here. The second passage, towards the end of her presentation, is this:

The president's lawyers may suggest that the House should sought- a-
that the House should have sought these materials in court
under the Freedom of Information Act
a.k.a FOIA lawsuits.
Any such suggestion is meritless.



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 10:15 am


  2. Anonymous Coward said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 9:43 pm

    Could someone explain why it's l[oː]yer but l[ɔː]suits?

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 11:08 pm

    FOIA and lawyer might rhyme in certain non-rhotic accents but the clip of Rep. Deming has both words and her pronunciation of "lawyers" sounds reasonably rhotic to me.

  4. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 3:06 am

    "Could someone explain why it's l[oː]yer but l[ɔː]suits?"

    Interesting question, but note that your statement doesn't apply to all dialects.

  5. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 3:22 am

    "Could someone explain why it's l[oː]yer but l[ɔː]suits?"
    I agree with Phillip Helbig.
    I think that phonologically the vowels are in fact the same, but that the phonetic realization of the vowel in "lawyer" will be higher due to assimilation to following high consonant – for some speakers/dialects.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 5:56 am

    Could someone explain why it's l[oː]yer but l[ɔː]suits?

    Maybe, but it would have to be true. It certainly isn't true for SAE, where "lawyer" /lɔɪ.ɚ/ uses the CHOICE vowel and "lawsuit" /lɑ.sut/ uses the LOT-CLOTH-PALM-THOUGHT vowel. (I couldn't tell you which one, though I suspect historically the answer is "THOUGHT".)

  7. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:10 am

    I've been puzzling this one over. Even if resulting from a mishearing, "lawyer lawsuits" doesn't really make sense. The percentage of lawsuits filed pro se (i.e. without a lawyer) is minuscule; it would be like saying "surgeon surgeries", or "butcher butchering", or "linguist vowel-pilpul".

  8. Grover Jones said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    I wonder what the acoustic are in the chambers. He could have been having trouble hearing, who knows?

  9. Philip Anderson said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    Lexico/Oxford gives two pronunciations for lawyer: /ˈlɔːjə/ & /ˈlɔɪə/.
    I.e. law+yer and a diphthong. I (British) would usually use the latter. They only give the first type for sawyer, although I think I rhyme it with soya, unless I am stressing the ‘saw’ element.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:29 am

    It's THOUGHT, of course, in 'lawsuits' as it's a transparent compound of 'law'. But 'lawyer' no longer is – its vowel is now associated with the CHOICE diphthong, and follows it. In American English it generally has a higher nucleus than does THOUGHT, and when lengthened can quite reasonably be heard as [oːj].

    Contra Philip and Phillip, the vowels are not phonemically the same; I would consider only the CHOICE option for 'lawyer' to occur in standard dialects (I'd accept either for 'sawyer', which is somewhat archaic).

    The more pertinent thing here is just what Sekulow can possible have been thinking the phrase meant, and why it would be germane. Since he kept repeating it, evidently he didn't see the 'lawyer' as redundant. It actually sounded like he had an extended mental lapse! (In passing I also heard him say "that's the facts". Others here have argued that lack of agreement occurs only with "there's", but I correctly maintained it can occur with other contractions of 'is'.)

    I also just found out how 'Sekulow' is pronounced. If it's German [ˈzeːkʊloː] (and it ought to be) that is the best anglicisation.

    Lawyer lawsuits! I don't think the White House was actually defending his use of the phrase, just confirming he actually said it (and meant to).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:31 am

    Perhaps the strange preference for /ˈlɔːjə/ (law-yer) comes ultimately from OED1, which is no longer good authority if it ever was for this.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:04 am

    I don't see exactly that in my 1933 edition, I see lǭ·yəɹ. The phonetic gloss offers "walk" and "wart" as exemplars of the sound represented by lower-case-o-with-ogonek-and-macron. In British English, one might say that this is the vowel sound of ALL, whilst I think that your /ɔː/ is perhaps more the sound of AWE. However, Wells appears not to differentiate between the two, classifying them both as THOUGHT, unless his FORCE is intended to be non-rhotic, in which case I would use FORCE as the lexical set to which /ɔː/ belongs. But regardless of the exact sound intended by lower-case-o-with-ogonek-and-macron, it would seem that in the period leading up to OED1 our modern /ˈlɔɪə/ was not the norm.

  13. KeithB said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    Grover Jones:
    That maybe the case, but they doubled down on it.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:39 am

    I would consider only the CHOICE option for 'lawyer' to occur in standard dialects (I'd accept either for 'sawyer', which is somewhat archaic).

    The profession word 'sawyer' is obsolete, but the character Tom Sawyer is quite well known, to Americans at least, and I think only the CHOICE vowel is valid there as well.

    This ties in to something else I've noticed — a lot of people seem to want to pronounce "aura" with the NORTH-FORCE vowel. I don't do this; I pronounce it with LOT-CLOTH-PALM-THOUGHT. (This identifier seems a little on the unwieldy side…)

    I've always been bemused by the NORTH-FORCE view of "aura", since it seems so out of step with the ordinary pronunciation of "au" as seen in audience / caught / fraud / applause / maudlin / taut etc. But it does match the set centaur / minotaur / taurus, which I (and, to the best of my knowledge, everybody else) do pronounce with NORTH-FORCE.

  15. RP said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 3:52 pm

    @Michael Watts, it's interesting to some of us non-rhotic speakers that you are so bemused by the NORTH-FORCE "aura". I use the NORTH-FORCE-THOUGHT vowel for it.

    @Andrew Usher, not just Lexico/Oxford but also the Collins English Dictionary online and the Longman Learners' Dictionary give /lɔːjə/ as a valid (and indeed the first) BrE pronunciation variant. Cambridge on the other gives only /lɔɪə/.

    Personally my inclination would be to agree with. I struggle to remember ever hearing any BrE speaker say anything but /lɔɪə/, and /lɔːjə/ strikes me as affected and obsolescent. I could be wrong, but sometimes the dictionaries are behind the times.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:21 pm

    RP, do you use THOUGHT for all the other "au" examples I listed? Audience, fraud, caught, applause, taut?

    I had been thinking that NORTH-FORCE "aura" must have come from interpreting the "au" as representing the GOAT vowel, as if it were French, and then GOAT plus a following R would be NORTH-FORCE. But I have to admit that an RP THOUGHT plus following R would seem to make more sense than that.

    In terms of what modern Americans say, though, there are really only two options:

    1. They use whatever vowel they use because that's what they've heard other people say.

    2. They use the vowel they use because that's how they interpreted the spelling.

    The history of the pronunciation can only conceivably affect strategy #1. In my mind, the word is much more common in print than in speech, but maybe I just don't talk to the right people.

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 9:07 pm

    As to what Sekulow may have meant by "lawyer lawsuits", I'm guessing he meant something along the lines of SLAPP suits, i.e. suits filed solely for the purpose of harassment or intimidation, without any expectation of winning in court. I'd bet good money that Sekulow, as Trump's attorney, is far more conversant with that sort of suit than with FOIA lawsuits.

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 1:32 am

    Michael Watts:
    The historically normal outcome of THOUGHT preceding /r/ is the NORTH/FORCE vowel; the two have merged again in (usual) non-rhotic accents.

    It's your pronunciation of 'aura' that needs to be explained. It must have originated as a spelling pronunciation, and since it seems specific to that word, probably among 'New Age' types that used it. Though it may not be so for you, there are Americans that use the same spelling pronunciation in 'centaur' and other words spelled with 'aur' – that's one way of distinguishing 'aural' from 'oral', which famously are homophones normally.

  19. RP said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 3:28 am

    @Michael Watts,
    Yes, I use the THOUGHT vowel in audience, fraud, caught, applause, taut.

  20. Rodger C said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 7:43 am

    There's one of those pop-linguistics maps somewhere that gives LOY-er as Northen and LAW-yer as Southern.

  21. chris said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 9:01 pm

    RP, do you use THOUGHT for all the other "au" examples I listed? Audience, fraud, caught, applause, taut?

    Now my mind is somewhat boggling at the idea of a dialect of English where thought, ought, taught and caught DON'T rhyme. And maybe taught and taut aren't even homophones?

    Although what this has to do with "lawyer" is even more mysterious, since I think of the first vowel of "lawyer" as much closer to "boy" or "toy", maybe even merged with those.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 8:10 am

    Do you read??

    The second was already stated by me and others, while the first is ridiculous and doesn't corresponding to anything anyone has said here. However, for the benefit of anyone that does read, there _are_ some words spelled 'au' (but not any of those given here) that the British have changed from THOUGHT to LOT, thus no longer having the expected vowel.

    Benjamin Orsatti:
    I missed your comment, but I obviously agree that 'lawyer lawsuits' is nonsense, at least without context he did not provide. As I implied, it seems he heard the phrase and ran with it, leaving his brain behind for the duration.

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