The Corpus and the Courts
University of Chicago Law Review Online (2021)
36 Pages Posted: 17 Mar 2021
Date Written: February 22, 2021
The legal corpus linguistics movement is one of the most exciting recent developments in legal theory. Justice Thomas R. Lee and Stephen C. Mouritsen are its pioneers, and their new article thoughtfully responds to critics. Here, Part I applauds their response as a cautious account of how those methods might, in some circumstances, provide relevant evidence about ordinary meaning in legal interpretation. Some disagreements persist, but The Corpus and the Critics makes significant progress in academic debates about legal interpretation. Part II turns from theory to practice: Judges are increasingly discussing corpus linguistics and conducting sua sponte analyses in their opinions, and this Essay collects and analyzes these cases. Corpus linguistics is theorized as apolitical, neutral, and objective. But in practice, it has been used largely by Republican-appointed judges, often inconsistently with standards that Lee and Mouritsen recently endorse. This Essay identifies a set of best practices, endorsed both by Lee and Mouritsen’s new cautious account and by many critics of the movement. It elaborates those commitments and evaluates whether they are met by courts citing or conducting legal corpus linguistics. If courts continue to employ legal corpus linguistics methods, the practice should be guided by these shared standards.
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