Legal Writing

New web platform helps users research meanings of words used in Constitution, Supreme Court opinions

  • Print.

A web platform that provides law-related historic linguistics information was announced Monday by Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Corpus linguistics involves the use of naturally occurring language in large collections of texts—called corpora—to help determine the meanings of words and phrases, according to a press release about the platform.

The unveiling of the Law and Corpus Linguistics Technology Platform, which is free to use, ties in with Constitution Day, the anniversary of the document’s ratification.

The Corpus of Founding Era American English, which allows users to examine how words from the Constitution were used from 1750 to 1799, is searchable on the platform; as is the Corpus of Early Modern English, which has more than 40,000 texts from 1485 to 1800; and the Corpus of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has more than 32,000 court documents. BYU Dean D. Gordon Smith said in the release that this is “the first corpora featuring all United States Supreme Court rulings (up to the most recent term).”

Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Solum said the new corpora will be helpful to those who want to research the meaning of the Constitution. “The method of corpus linguistics … provides an important tool for the recovery of the original public meaning of the constitutional text.”

Smith told the ABA Journal that he hopes people will get on the platform and start experimenting. “This is something simple and accessible to help people who might have a curiosity, but it’s also highly flexible for people who want more details,” said Smith, adding that information from the platform is citable in court.

Searches can be filtered by year, author, surrounding words and genre, such as “court proceeding,” “speech” or “news article,” Smith says. BYU undergraduates were hired to input and add metadata tags to some of the information, working with the law school, linguistics professors and programmers at the university.

James Heilpern, a law and corpus linguistics fellow at the law school, used the platform to research an amicus brief supporting the petitioner in last term’s U.S. Supreme Court case Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission. The 7-2 opinion found that the SEC’s administrative law judges are officers of the United States subject to the Constitution’s appointments clause.

“We were really interested to know how specifically Congress used the word officer and found hundreds of examples,” says Heilpern, adding that much of his brief was explaining corpus linguistics and how it figures in with modern times.

“Corpus linguistics as we know it didn’t really evolve until the advent of computers,” he says. “In the legal sphere, it didn’t really get underway until 2011. … But a lot of really fun, interesting work has been done in the last decade.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.