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Defining decisions on legal lexicon

Little guidance exists on common practice of citing dictionaries in court cases.

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A single word might determine the fate of a case before one of Indiana’s highest courts, so it’s no surprise that judges will often turn to dictionaries to help interpret what a word and statute might mean.

But judges face a daunting challenge in being the wordsmiths responsible for providing context for what the law means and how it’s applied in practice and principle. Despite its regularity, dictionary usage isn’t something everyone thinks is good practice and little guidance exists for when and how courts rely on dictionaries.

“Dictionaries are tools that provide effective guidance for the beginning of the process of defining terms – not the end – and lawyers and judges have other tools to give more precise definitions in context,” says a recent Marquette Law Review article written by a New York law professor and Arizona juvenile court judge. “Otherwise, those responsible for dispensing justice would defer too much to the dictionary author.”

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In the Marquette Law Review article entitled “Scaling the Lexicon Fortress,” the authors examined the past decade’s activity at the Supreme Court of the United States and found the justices had used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions between October 2000 and 2010. That’s in line with the 1990s that saw similar numbers and accounted for half of all the court’s dictionary-citing opinions in two centuries. By comparison, the 1980s had about 100 opinions defining 125 terms, while the 1960s had 16 opinions using the dictionary to define 23 terms.

The justices once relied on dictionaries mostly to refresh their memories about word meanings or to provide potential meanings the court could use based on statutory interpretation. But that’s evolved in cases in the past decade to the point where dictionary definitions have sometimes driven the decision more than policy or context.

The practice has drawn opposition from some nationwide, such as the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals that wrote in a decision that dictionaries “aim not to select or give meaning to a word or phrase but to report the meaning already established and commonly understood.” State courts in Tennessee have also criticized dictionary use as an imperfect interpretive tool, and the SCOTUS justices have, on occasion, criticized each other for too readily relying on dictionaries.

Legal scholars cite potential problems in using dictionaries for legal reasoning, such as arbitrary and possibly biased selection of dictionaries by judges, and lack of determination as to the qualifications it might have.

“Dictionaries, despite their allure as seemingly perfect arbiters of word meaning, do not reach the end goal of word definition,” the Marquette Law Review article says.

The study says that despite the growing use of dictionaries through the years, the SCOTUS had offered little guidance for when and how dictionaries should be used as a source. That leaves litigants, lawyers, and other courts to gather what principles they can from bits and pieces scattered through various court rulings.

Indiana

In the state-level appellate courts, dictionary use is a common occurrence. A LexisNexis search for the past two years shows the Indiana Supreme Court included the word “dictionary” in 16 opinions while the Court of Appeals used the word 197 times. A majority of those cases appear to have used Black’s Law Dictionary, though some include more than one reference and the courts fluctuate between legal, specialized, or standard dictionaries based on the case and issue at hand.

Sometimes, the exploration focuses on word tense in trying to gauge legislative intent while other times it’s the word itself – such as whether lawmakers used “shall” or “may” in crafting a statute.

Attorney Joel Schumm, a law professor at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, says the courts here have made decisions in recent years about what type of dictionary to rely on in certain situations. He pointed to one of his cases, Richard Brown v. State, No. 49S05-0612-CR-494, where Schumm argued a statutory term on criminal confinement was unconstitutionally vague and that it wasn’t appropriate to cite Black’s Law Dictionary as the state had. The justices agreed, writing that they preferred to consult standard dictionaries rather than specialized legal dictionaries for cases hinging on how ordinary people understand the law.
 

Joel Schumm mug Schumm

“Different dictionaries say different things, and even the same dictionary often has multiple meanings for a term,” Schumm said, noting that other cases have hit on that point as well. “When it comes down to a single word, sometimes having the right place to find a definition makes the difference.”

“It’s not unusual at all for parties to resort to dictionaries and for courts, in turn, to resort to them in trying to define words,” said Indianapolis appellate attorney Bryan Babb, an avid court watcher who has cited dictionaries in his own briefs. “There’s a statutory principle where statutes will be given their plain and ordinary meaning, and so the courts will do that when the Legislature doesn’t specifically define a word.”

More interesting than a traditional legal or standard dictionary, though, is the use of Wikipedia as a dictionary source in legal writing, Babb said. He pointed to one of his cases where he used a Wikipedia definition specifically because the state’s intermediate appellate court had already mentioned it.

“I couldn’t find any other dictionary to aptly define it and would’ve needed multiple sources to adequately explain that word and my argument,” he said. “So I used an opinion where the Court of Appeals had done that… if it’s OK for the Court of Appeals in deciding a case, then I figured it’d be OK for me to use in a brief.”

In the end, the judges, lawyers, and legal scholars reviewing or writing the briefs and opinions say judicial interpretation comes down to more than what a dictionary says.

The Marquette Law Review article sums it up well: “As noted more than 150 years ago, ‘the lexicographer is a historian, not a law giver.’”•

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  1. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  2. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  3. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  4. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  5. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

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