Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Statutory Interpretation - Interpretative Tools - Utah Supreme Court Debates Judicial Use of Corpus Linguistics

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Statutory Interpretation - Interpretative Tools - Utah Supreme Court Debates Judicial Use of Corpus Linguistics

Article excerpt

Statutory Interpretation--Interpretative Tools--Utah Supreme Court Debates Judicial Use of Corpus Linguistics.--State v. Rasabout, 356 P.3d 1258 (Utah 2015).

Courts have long sought to find the ordinary meaning of words and phrases in statutes, (1) enlisting a variety of tools, such as dictionaries, (2) canons of interpretation, (3) and the common sense of an English-language speaker. (4) Recently, in State v. Rasabout, (5) the Supreme Court of Utah considered a novel tool for statutory interpretation: corpus linguistics, "the study of language based on examples of 'real life' language use." (6) In recent decades, linguistic programs at universities and institutes have assembled corpora (or bodies) of language--vast computer databases cataloguing written and spoken language. (7) These databases can easily be searched to retrieve examples of how words or phrases have been used in different contexts at different times. (8) In Rasabout, the majority and concurrence debated the legitimacy of using this linguistic tool. The court unanimously held that the phrase "unlawful discharge of a firearm" in a criminal statute referred to each individual shot fired. (9) To arrive at this decision, the majority relied upon traditional tools of statutory interpretation. (10) But a concurring justice found these tools wanting and informed his judgment by searching for the word discharge in contemporary news articles and a linguistics database. (11) The majority argued that this research was inappropriate largely because corpus linguistics is an unfamiliar, scientific tool and its proper use requires an expertise judges lack. (12) Corpus linguistics is indeed novel. But in service of the traditional task of considering how a word is commonly used, jurists are capable of searching an online database for examples of how a word has been used. By providing externally generated examples, corpus linguistics can be a helpful double check against a judge's intuitive understanding of a word or phrase.

Eight years ago, Andy Rasabout fired twelve shots from a car into the home of a rival gang member. (13) A jury convicted him of twelve separate counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm under a Utah statute that makes it illegal to "discharge any kind of dangerous weapon or firearm ... from an automobile ...; from, upon, or across any highway; ... or ... within 600 feet of ... a house." (14) Because the shots were part of a single criminal episode, before sentencing the trial court merged the twelve separate counts into one conviction. (15)

The Utah Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Rasabout must be convicted and sentenced for each discrete shot fired. (16) The court of appeals examined the text of the criminal statute to determine if discharge meant that the legislature intended a separate conviction for each shot fired or one conviction for the whole episode. (17) Looking to dictionary definitions, the court determined that, in this context, discharge meant to "fire a weapon" (18) or to "shoot." (19)

The Utah Supreme Court granted certiorari and unanimously affirmed the court of appeals's decision, finding that discharge, in the context of a "dangerous weapon or firearm," (20) referred to "each discrete shot" and, as such, each of Rasabout's twelve discrete shots constituted a criminal violation. (21) To arrive at this conclusion, Justice Parrish, writing for the majority, (22) looked to the structure of the word discharge, the dictionary definition of discharge, the accompanying language in the statute, and common sense. (23) After observing that the root of the word discharge--charge--has noun and verb meanings related to the amount of gunpowder used in a single shot and that the dictionary definition of discharge included the meaning "to shoot," Justice Parrish concluded that "the clearest reading of the statute" is that discharge refers to each shot. (24)

Next, the majority admonished Associate Chief Justice Lee's concurrence for its reliance on corpus linguistics as a tool for statutory interpretation, (25) contending that his research was unfair to the parties because the rationale did not appear in the parties' arguments (26) and because judges should not decide cases by conducting their own "independent scientific research. …

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