Brooklyn Law School is pleased to announce the recent publication of Professor Lawrence Solan’s book, The Language of Statutes.
The Language of Statutes: Laws and their Interpretation (University of Chicago Press) joins learning from law, linguistics, and cognitive science to illuminate the fundamental issues and problems in this highly contested area. In the book, Solan argues that statutory interpretation is alive, well, and not in need of the major overhaul that many have suggested. Rather, he suggests, the majority of people understand their rights and obligations most of the time. The difficulty, Solan explains, arises in cases where there is a gap between, on the one hand, our limited ability to write crisp yet flexible laws, and on the other, the ways in which our cognitive and linguistic faculties are structured.
Solan said his goal in writing this book was to “explain the recurrent dilemmas of statutory interpretation in a way that will resonate with judges and lawyers engaged in the process of applying laws, and at the same time with academics and law students who participate in the debates about what is legitimate for courts to consider and what should be out of bounds.”
Solan’s discussion on statutory interpretation, informed by his background in linguistics and psychology (he holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT), begins with an exploration of what it is that creates problems in interpretation and then reflects on how the legal system responds to such problems.
The book introduces the problem with an example of a recent change in the law that made riding and moving between cars in the NYC subway system illegal. Solan pointed out that when the law was changed the signs on the cars, which refer only to riding between cars, were not changed. As a result, the number of arrests for violations of the law jumped from about 700 arrests in the year prior to the change to 17,000 in the year after the law was broadened. Solan used this illustration to show how there can be a disconnection between what the law “wants to accomplish on the one hand and what the communication of the law is on the other.” Most of the book is about miscommunication occurring within the law in itself.
Another statute Solan references is the bribery statute. He surveyed the cases decided under this law to determine just what aspects of language appear to create the biggest problems for the legal system. He found that there were no disputes over the syntax, but that there were many over how one judges a person’s state of mind and over whether the words in the law include the situations that arise in litigation. For example, should a private janitorial service hired by a government agency counts as a “government official” under the statute? Professor Solan noted that there were “lots of small questions at the borders of the meanings of words” and he concluded that “for the most part our language faculty enables us to communicate very well with respect to the relationships among various phrases and words. Syntactically we are very adept as speakers. There may be ambiguities but they are resolved in context quickly. What we are not very adept at is playing around at the edges of word meaning.”
Though there are many challenges facing legislatures, Solan argues that overall the task of statutory interpretation works remarkably well. He rejects the extreme arguments that judges have either too much or too little leeway, and rather focuses on how and why a certain number of interpretive problems are simply inevitable.
To learn more, listen to an interview with Professor Solan.
Read More about Professor Solan’s scholarship.