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The Syntax of Justice: Law, Language, Access & Exclusion

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | 4:00pm - 7:00pm UTC

Day One of Two

Program Participants:

Judge Richard Posner
US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and
Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago School of Law

Janet Ainsworth
John D. Eshelman Professor of Law,
Seattle University School of Law

Janet Randall
Professor, Linguistics Program and English Department,
Northeastern University

Margaret Hahn-Dupont
Associate Teaching Professor,
Northeastern University School of Law

Lawrence Solan
Don Forchelli Professor of Law and Director of Graduate Education,
Brooklyn Law School

Steven Winter
Walter S. Gibbs Professor of Constitutional Law
Wayne State University Law School

Lisa Green
Professor and Graduate Program Director, Department of Linguistics,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Michel DeGraff
Professor of Linguistics, Department of Linguistics and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of clear writing.

Consider this excerpt of a California jury instruction:

Failure of recollection is common. Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon.

Now consider the rewritten version:

People often forget things or make mistakes in what they remember.

Law is where we put into words what we consider to be appropriate conduct. At times, this wording may be difficult to understand — thus defeating its purpose. Similar problems arise when words or sentences are ambiguous, when a word has a specialized meaning or when words are added unnecessarily and contribute no meaning. Many words depend on context while others have connotations that may not be clear. And some words mean very different things in different dialects of English.

These problems invite us to examine issues that arise not only in legal language, but also in language in general. For example:

  • the tension between precise technical vocabulary and obfuscational jargon
  • how to write laws that everyone can understand
  • the challenge of developing plain language jury instructions that capture the law in terms understandable to all jurors
  • the ways that literal interpretation and plain text meaning are insufficient to capture the nuance of language familiar in ordinary conversation

This conference will focus on how language can lead to exclusion and injustice, and how to overcome these problems via research that recognizes and points to ways to rectify exclusion and expand access to justice.


Thursday, March 30, 2017
4:00pm - 7:00pm UTC
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