Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation: Applications

Friday, April 13 - Saturday, April 14

Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
5701 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60637

The task of understanding the meaning of the words and phrases that constitute legal texts has never been more urgent. The Constitution includes the following phrases, all controversial but none self evident: "keep and bear arms"; "the recess"; "cruel and unusual punishment"; "ex post facto"; and "gifts, emoluments, offices or titles." The leading modes of constitutional interpretation—originalism, textualism, and common law constitutionalism—rely on distinct theories of meaning, but they do not agree on which meanings are relevant or even on what "meaning" means. Recent advances in theoretical and computational linguistics, as well as vast new corpora of American and English usage, make possible the precise identification of the lexical shifts that have occurred over the past two centuries. These tools also enable scholars to determine how these shifts have affected both the diachronic semantics of words and phrases and their syntactic distributions. The results of such inquiries have direct application to questions of constitutional and statutory interpretation. This conference brings together linguists, legal scholars, and historians who are applying linguistic techniques to questions of meaning in law. RSVP >

Friday, April 13

1:00 – 1:15 pm
Welcome from Alison LaCroix & Jason Merchant

1:15 – 2:15 pm
Brian Slocum (University of the Pacific) and Stefan Th. Gries (University of California, Santa Barbara): "The Potential and Limits of Corpus Linguistic Analysis for Legal Interpretation"

2:30 – 3:30 pm
Lawrence Solum (Georgetown University): "Pragmatics and Semantics in Constitutional Interpretation"

3:30 – 4:00
Coffee break

4:00 – 5:00 pm
Tammy Gales (Hofstra University) and Lawrence Solan (Brooklyn Law School): "Historical Semantics & Statutory Interpretation"


Saturday, April 14

9:00 – 9:30
Coffee and pastries

9:30 – 10:30 am
Richard Fallon (Harvard University): "Inventing Legislative Intent"

10:45 – 11:45 am
Jonathan Gienapp (Stanford University): "Historical Knowhow and the Original Meaning of the Constitution"

12:00 – 1:15 pm

1:15 – 2:15 pm
John Mikhail (Georgetown University): "'Ex Post Facto': A New Look at an Old Controversy"

2:30 – 3:30 pm
Dennis Baron (University of Illinois): "Guns and Grammar: Linguistic Authority and Legal Interpretation in District of Columbia v. Heller"

3:30 – 4:00
Coffee break

4:00 – 5:00 pm
Jill Anderson (University of Connecticut): "Concreteness Effects and Legal Interpretation"

Download the abstracts >