Scientific Methods for Analyzing Original Meaning: Corpus Linguistics and the Emoluments Clauses

From the abstract for Clark D. Cunningham & Jesse Egbert, Scientific Methods for Analyzing Original Meaning: Corpus Linguistics and the Emoluments Clauses, Fourth Annual Conference of Law & Corpus Linguistics (2019):

In interpreting the Constitution’s text, courts “are guided by the principle that ‘[t]he Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from their technical meaning’.” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576 (2008). According to James Madison: “[W]hatever respect may be thought due to the intention of the Convention, which prepared and proposed the Constitution, as a presumptive evidence of the general understanding at the time of the language used, it must be kept in mind that the only authoritative intentions were those of the people of the States, as expressed through the Conventions which ratified the Constitution.”

In looking for “presumptive evidence of the general understanding at the time of the language used” courts have generally relied on dictionary definitions and selected quotations from texts dating from the period of ratification. This paper presents a completely different, scientifically-grounded approach: applying the tools of linguistic analysis to “big data” about how written language was used at the time of ratification. This data became publicly available in Fall 2018 when the website of the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA) was launched. COFEA contains in digital form over 95,000 texts created between 1760 and 1799, totaling more than 138,800,000 words.

The authors illustrate this scientific approach by analyzing the usage of the word emolument by writers in America during the period covered by COFEA, 1760-1799. The authors selected this project both because the interpretation of two clauses in the Constitution using emolument are of considerable current interest and because the meaning of emolument is a mystery to modern Americans.

The District of Columbia and State of Maryland are currently suing President Donald Trump alleging that his continued ownership of the Trump Hotel in Washington puts him in violation of Constitutional prohibitions on receiving or accepting “emoluments” from either foreign or state governments. The President’s primary line of defense is a narrow reading of emolument as “profit arising from an office or employ.”

The authors accessed every text in COFEA in which emolument appeared – over 2500 examples of actual usage – and analyzed all of these examples using three different computerized search methods. The authors found no evidence that emolument had a distinct narrow meaning of “profit arising from an office or employ.” All three analyses indicated just the opposite: emolument was consistently used and understood as a general and inclusive term.

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