Legal historian Alison LaCroix and linguist Jason Merchant are among the scholars supported by the Neubauer Collegium to develop a new interdisciplinary field, law and linguistics. These fields have become intertwined due to the increased interest by legal scholars and the courts in the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.
One problem with this approach, LaCroix and Merchant argue, is that contemporary jurists rely too heavily on historical dictionaries that offer only a partial perspective. To understand properly how language was used in the past, it must be examined in a more nuanced and comprehensive context. Only then, they say, can legal thinkers come to a better understanding of what was meant by phrases such as “keep and bear arms.”
LaCroix and Merchant’s project, “Historical Semantics and Legal Interpretation,” will help judges and legal scholars do just that. Using the vast collection of historical texts available through Google Books, they hope to develop online tools that will allow users to study in a more rigorous and sophisticated way how language and meaning have changed over the past two centuries.
LaCroix and Merchant’s preliminary work has highlighted the vexed questions of historical meaning and usage. “A linguist looking at originalism can’t help but feel it offers a false sense of security,” Merchant said. Still, “if someone is going to pursue originalist analysis, at least let them do it right.”
In that sense, the project “meets originalism on its own terms,” LaCroix said. She hopes it will prove “enriching, rather than simplifying” to those using linguistics to answer legal questions.
The project was an ideal fit for the Neubauer Collegium because it “brings fields and areas of inquiry together,” LaCroix said.
“It’s the kind of thing neither of us could do on our own,” Merchant added.
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