Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Today I read an article about juries and their ability to follow jury instructions. I'm not a lawyer yet, but I've read plenty of cases dealing with jury instructions that presume that juries can and do follow instructions. The article suggests, however, that juries actually follow the non-verbal communication from the judge because they don't understand or can't follow the legalese in the jury instructions. This exemplifies an interesting question of linguistics: how can we be sure that we both mean the same thing when we use the same word?

The article slyly teases lawyers for arguing about the exact wording of jury instructions, as if the difference between "intentionally" and "purposefully" doesn't matter to the average juror. They're probably right, but shouldn't it matter? I think so. I think that specific words are very important because of the hundreds of connotations and feelings they stir up and the impact those feelings and connotations have on my client's life. The difference between "intentionally" and "purposefully" may be the difference between, say, life (in prison) and death (by lethal injection).

Wittgenstein argued in one of his last books that philosophy would devolve into a war of dictionaries. He said that when philosophy reached that point, it would become useless to the average person and atrophy from apathy, fading into irrelevance. It looks like the law has already devolved into a war of dictionaries. With the recent trends toward alternative dispute resolution, is the law going to fade into irrelevance? Will my law degree, like my poli sci degree, be useless in a few years?

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