Extras – Language and the Law: A Conference Review

Kumar Percy is
Head of Reserve and Media Services
Tarlton Law Library
University of Texas School of Law
727 E. Dean Keeton Street, Austin, TX 78705

To celebrate the achievement of collecting a million volumes, the Jamail Center for Legal Research of the University of Texas sought a millionth volume that would symbolize the role of the law library. In honor of the Millionth Volume, the library held The Language & the Law Conference from December 6-8, 2001, a three day event devoted to the synergy between language and law.

If the study of law is an investigation into the meaning of words, then law libraries are the labs for this investigation and dictionaries are fundamental tools. As its symbolic Millionth Volume, the library chose a rare copy of the first English legal dictionary, John Rastell’s Exposicions of (th)e Termys of (th)e Law of England. First published in the sixteenth century, Rastell’s dictionary was the foundation of all subsequent legal dictionary. It was not only the first English law dictionary ever printed, but also the first dictionary of any kind published in the English language.

The Language & the Law Conference was an international conference that brought together experts from around the world to discuss the synergy between language and the law. The library invited a diverse array of speakers from different disciplines, including linguists, philosophers, judges, legislators, legal scholars, and law librarians.

The programs inspired theoretical discussions about the ways that language influences the development of the law, and the integral role that law libraries have played in the process. At the same time, the speakers also offered practical advice about drafting legislation, composing opinion letters, and defining legal terms.

The conference started with a full day workshop devoted to acquiring rare law books and manuscripts. Anthony Taussing, the speaker for the short course, is a London barrister and one of the world’s leading private collectors of rare English law books and manuscripts. The workshop covered the topics of how to bid at auctions, how to negotiate with dealers, and how to build a collection of rare law books and manuscripts. Mr. Taussig offered insights into the unique aspects of legal materials and how to set a value for such items. The workshop also included lively discussions how an item’s monetary value can differ from its scholarly value and the difference between institutional and private collectors.

The conference proceedings began with an introduction and welcome. President Faulkner of the University of Texas and Dean Powers of the UT School of Law used this as an opportunity to reflect on the many accomplishments of the Jamail Center for Legal Research. Prof. Mersky also noted that the Millionth Volume was a welcome addition to the library’s extensive collection of rare legal dictionaries.

The proceedings continued with a panel devoted to the early days of English legal lexicography. Michael Widener started the program with the history of the Millionth Volume, a unique combination of the first and third editions of Rastell’s dictionary. John Baker and Anthony Taussig discussed how John Rastell and his son William helped shape English law since the sixteenth century.

Victor Tunkel ended the first program by going off topic and discussing the role of Hebrew in the development of English law. He explained that medieval Jewish moneylenders operated in Great Britain and memorialized loans through Hebrew-language documents called “stahs.” The “stahs” influenced the development of British law, especially commercial law. Additionally, the Hebrew word “stah” may be the origin of the term Star Chamber, a notorious tribunal conducted in a chamber that housed “stahs.”

During the next panel, Morris Cohen, and George Grossman explained the history of legal lexicography since Rastell and the evolution of legal dictionaries.

The topics covered, among others, the history and present state of legal lexicography, the role of dictionaries in the development of the law, the role of storytelling in the legal system, the plain language movement, and finally the role of law libraries in preserving the law. One interesting program discussed how legislators in Australia are using graphics in legislation.

Another highlight was a lunchtime speech by Bryan Garner, the editor of the seventh edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. He discussed how the new edition varies from the previous ones. One significant change is the inclusion of quotations from scholarly and not from judicial opinions. The scholar’s quotations are intended as authoritative explanations of terms, not examples of usage by individual judges.

Mr. Garner’s talk was an excellent foundation for Lawrence Solan’s presentation of how judges misuse dictionaries. Mr. Solan, a linguist and a legal scholar, argues that lexicographers and judges look at definitions from different viewpoints. The judiciary uses the elements of a definition to decide a case, the lexicographer create a short general definition based upon common usage. Mr. Solan suggested that dictionary definitions are often too general to answer a judicial question. He suggests that dictionaries not be used to find ultimate definitions, but as one tool to help distill the full meaning of words.

The programs had a distinctive common law flavor, with speakers from the US, the UK and Australia. However, the participants included legal experts from around the country and the globe, including India and the Court of Justice of the European Communities. A good place to mingle with participants was the conference’s exhibit hall. One exceptional exhibit was a history of Shepard’s Citations, complete with original Shepard’s flags from the Nineteenth Century.

The conference also catered several meals, offering other opportunity to meet the participants. A dinner banquet included entertainment from a law-inspired musical group of lawyers, the Bar and Grill Singers, and a speech by Christopher Ricks, of Boston University. He discussed law, language, ethics, literature, and Bob Dylan. The conference closed with a BBQ lunch and a speech by Sir David Williams of Cambridge University, which was an excellent summation of the conference.

Overall, the Language and the Law Conference was an engaging three-day event. It was an excellent study of language and the law.

For more information, see the Conference Website: http://www.law.utexas.edu/conference/. It has a wealth of information about the topic of language and the law. It also includes a video archive of the conference proceedings. Additionally, the Jamail Center for Legal Research is in the process of publishing the proceeding papers from the conference.

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