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Law & the Courts

Sorry, the Dictionary Can’t Change the Meaning of ‘Court-Packing’

During a recent social-media spat over the meaning of “Court-packing,” an intrepid person named J. D. Graham got onto the Wayback Machine and found out that sometime between November 1 and December 1, 2020, Dictionary.com, whose “proprietary source is the Random House Unabridged Dictionary,” changed the meaning of the phrase.

Here it is before:

an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court, which had invalidated a number of his New Deal laws.

Here is the addition:

the practice of changing the number or composition of judges on a court, making it more favorable to particular goals or ideologies, and typically involving an increase in the number of seats on the court: Court packing can tip the balance of the Supreme Court toward the right or left.

“Language evolves. So do we,” was the reply from Dictionary.com.

Indeed, language evolves organically over long periods of time. It does not miraculously transform one day after 60 years during a presidential election to comport with the new definition a political party has whipped up. Dictionaries are a resource that allows people to find out the meaning of words. They do not get to invent new meanings.

“Court-packing” is still apparently a politically toxic phrase. Democrats have tried to claim Republicans are “packing the courts” by accusing them of getting elected and nominating and confirming judges for vacant seats, using the very same method that duly elected officials have been relying on since the beginning of the republic. But “Court-packing” has a specific historical implication, and many people rightly still see it as an unprecedented abuse of power.

Of course, I get why some Democrats want to change the definition, but it’s somewhat remarkable how institutions are willing to destroy their credibility by doing this sort of thing.

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