When the Law Speaks Plainly

Oh, that Scalia.  The originalist has once again coined an original term.  You may recall that this past January, while at a speaking engagement at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Justice Scalia quipped that Chicago deep dish pizza is not truly pizza, but “tomato pie or something.”  This time, however, the erudite justice offered his neologism in a more formal setting, in his dissent to yesterday’s ruling in Montana v. Wyoming (2011) __ U.S. __, __.  Scalia refers to the people of Wyoming as “Wyomans.”  In a footnote, he explains: “The dictionary-approved term is ‘Wyomingite,’ which is also the name of a type of lava, see Webster’s New International Dictionary 2961 (2d ed. 1957). I believe the people of Wyoming deserve better.”

Unlike Scalia, the rest of us are best advised not to offer novel words in court.  In fact, determining the meaning of existing words presents a challenge in itself.  It’s not uncommon for patrons at the Alameda County Law Library to scour the codes for a statutory definition or read case after case to find a judicial interpretation.  In addition to the primary authorities, two useful tools for finding the legal meaning of a word are Black’s Law Dictionary and Words and Phrases.  If the secondary sources fail also, it may simply be that no legal definition is available.  In such cases, it’s often acceptable to look to non-legal resources for guidance. 

The California Courts sometimes refer to standard dictionaries for help with statutory construction: “When construing the meaning of words in a statute, courts should first look to the plain dictionary meaning of the word unless it has a specific legal definition.”  Ceja v. J.R. Wood, Inc. (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d 1372, 1375.  Similarly, the Supreme Court of the United States has also found plain meanings of words acceptable where legal definitions are unavailable: “In the absence of a statutory definition, we construe a statutory term in accordance with its ordinary or natural meaning.”  FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 476 (1994).  In fact, in some instances, a plain language meaning may even be preferable to a legal definition.  The California Legislature enacted such a law that governs the interpretation of contractual terms:

The words of a contract are to be understood in their ordinary and popular sense, rather than according to their strict legal meaning; unless used by the parties in a technical sense, or unless a special meaning is given to them by usage, in which case the latter must be followed (Code Civ. Proc. § 1644).

So if your search for the legal definition for a statutory or contractual term fails, it could be because the drafters intended no legal meaning.  

If you are searching for a legal definition, the Alameda County Law Library has Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009).  Words and Phrases will be found at the end of Federal Practice Digest or the California Digest.  And if all else fails, the library has Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the more current edition of the dictionary cited by Justice Scalia in Montana v. Wyoming.   

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s