The Dictionary’s Role in Statutory Interpretation

Remember the response you got every time you asked your teacher how to spell a word? “Look it up on the dictionary.”  To which we all mumbled under our breath, “How am I supposed to look it up if I don’t know how to spell it?”

Well, there may be another question that gets the same answer to “look it up in the dictionary.”  That question is, “How do I interpret this statute?”

Honest.  Check out University of Louisville’s law school Library Director Kurt X. Metzmeier’s paper at SSRN (Social Science Research Network) entitled “You Can Look it Up: The Use of Dictionaries in Interpreting Statutes.”  No mumbling, now.

Here’s the abstract:

Justice Antonin Scalia’s well-known preference for using dictionaries rather than legislative history to interpret statutes is the jumping off point for an examination of the tools of textual analysis. The brief article offers common-sense rules for scientifically selecting dictionaries to interpret statutory language. First, the author describes the most respected unabridged dictionaries and their history. Next, there is a discussion of the principle that the dictionary selected should be relatively contemporaneous with the text interpreted. Finally, the use of specialized dictionaries to interpret the unique terminology of a trade or profession is detailed.

Your reward for downloading the paper (besides the content itself) is a great color photo of a Justice Scalia “bobblehead” figure.

Thanks to Legal Writing Prof Blog for the link.