Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Corpus Linguistics as Interpretive Tool

In a ruling last week in State v. Rasabout, the justices of the Utah supreme court all agreed on the bottom line: Under a criminal statute that provides that a person “may not discharge any kind of dangerous weapon or firearm” under specified circumstances, each discrete shot of a firearm is an unlawful discharge. But the otherwise routine ruling was the occasion for an interesting debate between associate chief justice Thomas R. Lee and his colleagues over the use of so-called corpus linguistics as an interpretive tool.

In a stint back in the office between short vacations, I’ll offer only a brief outline of the back and forth.

As Lee explains in his 40-page concurring opinion, corpus linguistics is a mode of textual analysis that relies on “access [to] large bodies of real-world language to see how particular words or phrases are actually used.” In part II-B of his opinion, Lee relies on the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage (COCA)—a database of more than 410 million words of American English—to resolve that the statutory term discharge refers to a single shot and that it isn’t limited to emptying the entire contents of a weapon.

The majority opinion argues that a judge’s sua sponte corpus linguistics research is not appropriate (see slip op. at 9-12), and Lee, in part III of his opinion, vigorously responds. Chief justice Matthew B. Durrant, in a separate concurrence, offers a mix of applause for and concerns about Lee’s approach. 

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