When called upon to interpret the undefined words in a legal text, U.S. judges will often invoke a rule (or canon) of interpretation called the “plain meaning rule,” which holds that if the language of the text is clear and unambiguous, courts cannot consider any extrinsic evidence to determine what the text means. But U.S. courts have no uniform definition of what “plain meaning” actually means and no systematic method for discovering and resolving ambiguities in legal texts. Faced with these challenges, some U.S. judges and academics have recently begun to consider the use of corpus linguistics to resolve uncertainties in the interpretation of legal texts. A corpus-based approach to legal interpretation promises to increase the objectivity and predictability of decisions about the meanings of legal texts. However, such an approach also presents a number of theoretical problems that must be addressed before corpus methods can be fully incorporated into a theory of legal interpretation. This article documents this recent turn to corpus linguistics in legal interpretation and outlines some of the challenges facing the corpus-based approach to legal interpretation.
Cite as: Mouritsen, JLL 6 (2017), 67–89, DOI: 10.14762/jll.2017.067
corpus linguistics, statutory interpretation, legal interpretation, plain meaning, ordinary meaning, legal linguistics
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