Adam Liptak in the New York Times:
In a decision last week in a patent case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. puzzled out the meaning of a federal law by consulting the usual legal materials — and five dictionaries.
One of the words he looked up was “of.” He learned that it means pretty much what you think it means.
In May alone, the justices cited dictionaries in eight cases to determine what legislators had meant when they used words like “prevent,” “delay” and “report.” Over the years, justices have looked up both perfectly ordinary words (“now,” “also,” “any,” “if”) and ones you might think they would know better than the next guy (“attorney,” “common law”).
All of this is, lexicographers say, sort of strange.
You’re not kidding. German judges are funny with dictionaries too, especially with the Dietl law dictionary EN>DE. And specialist bilingual dictionaries are always pretty unreliable.
Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the OED, thinks it’s probably wrong in almost all circumstances to use a dictionary in the courtroom. (I suppose editor at large is not the same as criminal at large).
It’s an interesting article and links to other sources, such as a study (183 pages long) in the Marquette Law Review by Kirchmeier and Thumma on the use of dictionaries in the Supreme Court in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Learned Hand, widely considered the greatest judge never to have served on the Supreme Court, cautioned against the mechanical examination of words in isolation.
“It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary,” Judge Hand wrote in a 1945 decision, “but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.”