Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Looking It Up - Latest Rulings Based on Dictionaries

Much to the chagrin of many linguists and legal academicians, courts continue to base rulings on what they find in the dictionary. (Given that appellate courts are supposed to "interpret" the law, some have argued that this practice makes Webster's a sort of super-supreme court). Here are some appellate cases from the last few days, for those interested in monitoring this sort of thing.... (you will need a Westlaw password to access the linked opinions)

U.S. v. McNeal, 2006 WL 929357 at *2 (3rd Cir., April 11, 2006) (using "Webster's New World Dictionary" to define "confinement" for purposes of juvenile detention in an institution, which in turn affected the defendant's sentencing as an adult as a repeat-offender when he pled guilty to a firearms conspiracy).

U.S. v. Alli, _ F.3d _, 2006 WL 893620 at *6 (1st Cir. April 7, 2006) ("One dictionary defines “traffic” as “the activity of exchanging commodities by bartering or buying and selling.”Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1986).") (interesting stolen credit cards case)

U.S. v. Williams, _ F.3d _, 2006 WL 871200 (11th Cir. April 6, 2006) (this is an interesting case because the Court actually cites an online dictionary, and charges the defendant with a word that I cannot find in the statute itself, strangely) (“Pandering” is defined as the catering to or exploitation of the weaknesses of others, especially “to provide gratification for others' desires.” See Merriam Webster Online Dictionary , http://www.m-w.com (last visited March 23, 2006). As a legal concept, pandering is most commonly associated with prostitution. In that context, pandering provisions are statutes penalizing various acts by intermediaries who engage in the commercial exploitation of prostitution and are aimed at those who, as agents, promote prostitution rather than against the prostitutes themselves. The term pandering, in some instances, is applied by Congress and the courts to the promotion of obscenity).

Harrell v. U.S., _ F.3d _, 2006 WL 895488, (10th Cir., April 6, 2006) (The parties, particularly plaintiff, use the word “allided” to describe Mr. Harrell's accident in this case. According to Webster's Third International Dictionary, an “allision” is “the action of dashing against or striking upon” or “the running of one ship upon another ship that is stationary.”) (I learned a new word!) (this was a tubing accident case)

Wilson v. Draper & Goldberg, P.L.L.C., _F.3d_, 2006 WL 861429 at *6, (4th Cir. April 5, 2006)
(defining both "incidental" and "central" - “Incidental” means “occurring merely by chance or without intention or calculation” or “being likely to ensue as a chance or minor consequence.” Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary 586 (10th ed.2000). And “central” is defined as “of cardinal importance: essential, principal.”)

Minges Creek, L.L.C. v. Royal Ins. Co. of America, __ F.3d __, 2006 WL 870498 at *4 (6th Cir., April 6, 2006) (Insurance coverage case)

"Premises" is defined by Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 920 (10th ed.1997), as “a tract of land with the buildings thereon.” If the term premises is more appropriately classified as a “term of art,” however, reference to a specialized dictionary is appropriate. Black's Law Dictionary 1180-81 (6th ed.1997), is such a specialized dictionary, and it defines premises as follows: Land with its appurtenances and structures thereon. Premises is an elastic and inclusive term, and it does not have one definite and fixed meaning; its meaning is to be determined by its context and is dependent upon circumstances in which used, and may mean a room, shop, building, or any definite area. Black's Law dictionary thus recognizes that the term premises has an elastic and context-specific definition.