Bringing linguistics into judicial decisionmaking: semantic analysis submitted to the US Supreme Court


  • Jeffrey P. Kaplan San Diego State University
  • Georgia M. Green University of Illinois
  • Clark D. Cunningham Washington University
  • Judith N. Levi Northwestern University



Statutory interpretation, lexical meaning, ambiguity, propositional attitudes.


A substantial research endeavour carried out by a team of three theoretical linguists and a law professor on three cases pending before the US Supreme Court in its 1993-4 term resulted in a major law review article which was sent to the Court while the cases were being considered. Unlike the usual amicus curiae brief, this research was not undertaken in support of any party in any of the cases. In one of the cases there is reason to believe that the team's analysis may have contributed to the Court's decision and opinion; in another, the concurring opinion seems to have rested directly on the team's analysis; and in the third, although the opinion showed no evidence of reliance on the team's research, the decision was nonetheless in line with the team's findings. The receptiveness of at least some of the current justices of the US Supreme Court to the applicability and relevance of language analysis as carried out by linguists in cases that depend on the resolution of linguistic issues is a hopeful sign to those interested in seeing growth in the recognition of the relevance of linguistics to the law.

Author Biographies

Jeffrey P. Kaplan, San Diego State University

JEFFREY P. KAPLAN was trained as a syntactician and is the author of English Grammar: Principles and Facts (1989, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall) and articles on English VP anaphora and on the language of the law. One of the few American linguists with a JD degree, he has consulted in a number of legal cases, and co-authored 'Plain meaning and hard cases' along with Cunningham, Levi, and Green. Kaplan is Associate Professor of Linguistics at San Diego State University.

Georgia M. Green, University of Illinois

GEORGIA M. GREEN, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Illinois, has published widely on syntactic theory and on semantic and pragmatic interpretation in natural language understanding and has served as a consultant in several legal cases. She is the author of Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding (1989, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) and co-authored 'Plain meaning and hard cases' with Cunningham, Levi, and Kaplan.

Clark D. Cunningham, Washington University

CLARK D. CUNNINGHAM, Professor of Law at Washington University in St Louis, has published on various applications of linguistics to law (in the Yale, Cornell, Michigan, and Iowa law reviews). His application of semantic analysis to Fourth Amendment law won the 1988 Scholarly Paper competition of the Association of American Law Schools. Cunningham was the lead author of 'Plain meaning and hard cases', co-authored with Levi, Green, and Kaplan (1994, Yale Law journal, 103(6)).

Judith N. Levi, Northwestern University

JUDITH N. LEVI, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Northwestern University, is a theoretical linguist by training. She authored The Syntax and Semantics of Complex Nominals, (1978, New York: Academic Press), and co-edited (with Anne Graffam Walker) Language in the judicial Process (1990, New York: Plenum). In the last decade her publications have focused on social science research on the role of language in legal processes and contexts, and on forensic linguistics. She has also served as a consultant or expert witness in over twenty legal cases, both civil and criminal.



How to Cite

Kaplan, J. P., Green, G. M., Cunningham, C. D., & Levi, J. N. (2013). Bringing linguistics into judicial decisionmaking: semantic analysis submitted to the US Supreme Court. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 2(1), 81–98.



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