Scaling the Lexicon Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries in the Twenty-First Century
183 Pages Posted: 9 May 2011
Date Written: May 5, 2011
This Article examines the Court’s use of dictionaries in the first decade of the twenty-first century, building on previous research by Professor Kirchmeier and Judge Thumma regarding the Supreme Court’s history of using dictionaries: Samuel A. Thumma & Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, The Lexicon Has Become a Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries, 47 BUFF. L. REV. 227 (1999); Samuel A. Thumma & Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, The Lexicon Remains a Fortress: An Update, 5 GREEN BAG 51 (2001).
During Supreme Court Terms 2000 - 2001 through 2009 - 2010 the Justices have referenced dictionary definitions to define nearly 300 words or phrases. Yet the Court has never expressly explained the proper role and use of the dictionary in American jurisprudence. The Article studies the frequency and the approach the Justices have taken to citing dictionaries in the new century, and it considers the Court’s lack of a reasoned process for selecting or using dictionaries.
Part I examines the frequency of dictionary use in the new century as compared to past use, comparing the different Justices with respect to their dictionary usage and the dictionaries most frequently cited by the Court. Part II addresses the stages of dictionary use, from the initial decision to use a dictionary to define a word to the selection of the dictionary and the choice of definitions. Part III examines some recent cases that illustrate the approaches taken in using dictionaries to define terms from various sources, including the United States Constitution, statutes, and prior cases. The Article includes three comprehensive appendices that compile information from the twenty-first century cases, listing: (1) the terms defined by the Court with references to the cases; (2) the Justices who have used a dictionary in opinions (along with their frequency of use and which dictionaries are used); and (3) the dictionaries used by the Court. These appendices, when combined with the authors’ previous articles examining the Supreme Court’s dictionary use through the twentieth century, provide a comprehensive compilation of the use of dictionaries since the Court began.
The Article concludes that, in the twenty-first century, the Court continues to use dictionaries at a high rate with little guidance for parties, lawyers or others regarding when to turn to dictionaries, which dictionaries to use, and how to use dictionaries. Although the authors are able to deduce several principles from the Court’s history, to date, the United States Supreme Court has issued no definitive decision squarely addressing the proper use of the dictionary. The ongoing usage of dictionaries by the United States Supreme Court and other courts continues to demonstrate the need for such guidance.
Keywords: Dictionary, Dictionaries, Supreme Court, Justices
JEL Classification: K10, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation