Supreme Court's New Go-To Tool: the Dictionary

Justices citing definitions more and more in decisions
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Jun 14, 2011 1:52 PM CDT
Justices like their dictionaries.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – John Roberts may be the chief justice of the United States, but he recently pulled out a dictionary to learn the meaning of “of” for a ruling. Justices are looking more and more to dictionaries to help them settle cases—a trend that worries both legal experts and dictionary makers, the New York Times reports. “I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” says an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Among the words looked up: "now," "if," and even "attorney."

“Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them," he adds. Yet the high court looked up 295 words and phrases in 225 opinions between 2000 and 2010, a study finds, compared to 23 words in 16 opinions in the 1960s. On top of that, justices have used more than 120 different dictionaries. “It’s easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuance that you’re interested in,” notes the OED editor.

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