When Dictionaries Are a Matter of Life or Death…

Supreme Court, dictionaries, gavelTwo recent events have raised the complicated question of whether or not dictionaries belong in courtrooms. A murder trial in Virginia was disrupted because the jurors illicitly consulted two dictionaries and a thesaurus. (The defense is currently seeking a mistrial.) And even on the Supreme Court it seems dictionaries are being misused.

In the past, judges have resorted to the dictionary to decide important trials, but typically they consulted law dictionaries, not general dictionaries. But are they now taking definitions out of context to support their own point of view?

In legalese, a dictionary is a “secondary authority” in a case. Just as a congressional hearing could be used to better understand the intent of a specific law, a law dictionary can be consulted to enhance the meaning of a general word like “malice” or “lawful.” Law dictionaries often cite specific cases and the past use of the word in court documents. General dictionaries do not give the contextual definition of a word, which is usually the issue at hand in subtle court analyses. In fact, law dictionaries often cite the difference between how a word is used generally versus legally. In this excerpt from Black’s Law Dictionary, Second Edition, the word “malice” is distinguished: “‘Malice,’ in its common acceptation, means ill will towards some person. In its legal sense, it applies to a wrongful act done intentionally, without legal justification or excuse.” This direct distinction implies that the “common application” of a word might not always be applicable in a legal context.

According to The Washington Post, the Supreme Court has an intense, new interest in dictionaries. In two out of the ten cases presented last year, the justices consulted and directly referenced dictionaries in their court decisions. A law professor and a political scientist, though, argue that this marked use of dictionaries is intended to project an “objective veneer” on a subjective decision. There is no consistency with which judges use certain dictionaries over others; it appears that the justices consult and quote whichever dictionary best supports their position, even referring to different dictionaries within the same brief. To these professors, this reliance on the dictionary is troubling because dictionaries themselves do not purport to include every legal implication of a particular word. You can also read the complete analysis.

Recently, in Virginia, a case had to be re-evaluated when it came to light that the jurors were using dictionaries. Court employees found two dictionaries and a thesaurus in the deliberation room, and these unauthorized secondary authorities called the entire case into question. The jurors were interviewed about the use of these dictionaries, and the judge ruled that there was juror misconduct. The defense lawyer is now seeking a mistrial because the jurors looked up the words “malice” and “malicious” to decide whether or not the defendant was guilty of “manslaughter” or “murder.” This court’s decision reveals that dictionaries can be misused and adversely influence the outcome of a case. So why are they widely used by the highest court?

Do you think general dictionaries should be allowed in court deliberations?

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