Lawrence Solan's book is the latest contribution to the series of studies of Language and Legal Discourse, edited by William
M. O'Barr and John M. Conley. The appearance of this series is proof of the affinity between the fields of linguistics (in all its
manifestations) and the law, and has provided a welcome outlet for the expanding literature on the topic.
The stated goal of Solan's book is to show how judges "resort to linguistic argumentation...to find a seemingly scientific and
neutral justification for difficult decisions... in an effort to mask some other agenda that is at the root of the judge's opinion"
(page 11). He bases his thesis on the late Justice Cardozo's description of judicial decision-making in a system of law that
cannot possibly, and indeed, was never intended, to mechanically predict each and every new situation. It was Cardozo's
contention that judges tended to deny the flexibility of legal principles and their own motives for making specific decisions.
Solan seeks to show that judges prefer legitimating their decisions on the seemingly more objective and universal nature of
language, especially when their own sense of justice demands a certain course of action that legal principles cannot fully
support. However, more often than not, Solan's analysis, although clearly written and at times even funny, is not persuasive. In
fact, some of his examples demonstrate that judges ignore language issues altogether; others deal with topics that hardly relate
to the main thesis. Solan's book would have been more successful had he not set up these expectations, and had defined his
goals more generally as the exploration of linguistic issues in judicial decisions. Still, both legal scholars and linguists will
appreciate his descriptions of the intertwining of language and legal issues in the language of judges. Indeed, few are as qualified
as he is to deal with this subject, having been trained in both linguistics and the law.
In analyzing judicial decisions, Solan distinguishes between the decision itself and the justification for the decision. In the best
chapter in the book (chapter 2), Solan focuses on justifications that are based on linguistic, rather than legal, principles. He
concisely presents certain linguistic principles, such as the last antecedent rule in the use of pronouns, and then shows how these
are invoked by judges in justifying their decisions. Solan is at his best in summarizing legal disputes and in explaining the
principles that are used by the judges in their decisions. Even readers with no legal background will be able to follow the
arguments and issues involved in decisions about trusts, forfeitures, custody, and harassment. His main argument -- that judges
are not consistent in their use of linguistic principles and that these are used to further other aims -- is most clearly documented
in this chapter. Thus, for example, he shows how a far-fetched application of the last antecedent rule is used to ensure that an
innocent victim will obtain immediate compensation from an insurance company.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on ambiguity in legal concepts and principles. Solan presents cases in which the determination that a
concept in a statute is ambiguous has important consequences for the final decision. While the determination of ambiguity is
conceivably a linguistic issue, Solan reveals that judges do not resort to linguistics to determine the ambiguity or clarity of a
concept. Rather, judges decide on the ambiguity of a term on the basis of precedent and substantive legal concerns. Thus,
although his analysis reveals such anomalies as a unanimous decision among the nine judges that a statute was unambiguous, but
a split of five to four on what the statute meant, this does not support the main thesis of the book. Instead of demonstrating that
judges mask their real motives by recourse to linguistic principles, Solan actually shows that linguistic issues are ignored or
subsumed by ideological considerations.
In chapter 5, Solan switches topics. Here, he seeks to explain why legal language is so
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complicated and describes the efforts of the Plain Language movement to simplify legal language. Aside from their tangential
relevance to the main topic of the book, these issues have been analyzed more thoroughly elsewhere. A case in point is the
reason for the convoluted language used in legal texts. Contrary to various conspiratorial theories that claim legalese serves
lawyers' self interests, power and prestige, Solan blames the continued use of jargon on "the fear of abandoning successful
formulas...and simple inertia" (p. 134). A much more satisfying explanation is provided by Danet (1984) who demonstrates by
reference to rhetoric and poetics how the syntactic and semantic features of legal language provide a sense of authority and
finality in crucial human affairs. While Solan also refers to the need for creating the illusion of definitiveness in legal documents,
he would have benefited from Danet's analysis to prove his case.
On its own, chapter 6 would have been a fascinating article, outlining the principles used in judicial decisions based on the
Fourth and Fifth Amendments (against unreasonable searches and self incrimination respectively). At issue are the interpretive
principles used in deciding whether a corporation is a person and thus cannot be forced to incriminate itself, what counts as an
admission, and what defines the area in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. In all these cases, Solan
contends that the Supreme Court has not been consistent in the application of these interpretive principles. Sometimes linguistic
principles are used in decisions, but more often than not, they do not contribute to the court's decision. Again, instead of
illustrating the claim that judges restrict the debate to the meaning of terms while hiding the true substantive issues, his examples
show that judges generally do not rely on linguistic definitions but extend their interpretation to a wide range of issues. The role
of language is limited to the restriction of the range of possible interpretations. In fact, it is Solan's skill in untangling the
complexity of the factors involved in interpretation that is one of the strengths of his book.
What Solan particularly resents is the fact that judges present their decisions as the inevitable consequence of legal doctrine,
rather than admitting that legal principles cannot resolve every dispute. He feels that the failure to present the real reasons for
their decisions damages the credibility of the entire system, and results in a lack of confidence in the rule of law. At the same
time, he acknowledges that any judge who would candidly admit that there are no legal principles to explain certain decisions,
would also reduce the stability of the system.
It seems to me that Solan overstates his case. Surely the fact that dissenting opinions are offered with the same authority and
inevitability as are majority opinions underlines the flexibility of the system, without detracting from its credibility. Moreover, it is
not necessary to posit a deliberate attempt to mislead when judges stress the legal doctrine behind a decision they may have
taken for other, more ideological reasons. In accordance with Fish's (1989) theory of rhetoric in legal texts, a distinction can be
made between the judges' actual decision-making process, and the presentation of a persuasive account of their decision. Fish
claims that when judges justify their decisions, they are not trying to be dishonest, but that in order to persuade their audience,
they must phrase their reasons within the accepted and legitimate legal frame. Solan does not accept the rhetorical explanation.
As proof, he refers to the many simple cases where judges routinely use doctrine, and in which there is no distinction between
the decision and the justification. However, because the book focuses mainly on those decisions that are not clear-cut, Solan's
rejection of rhetorical explanations is not convincing.
Thus, although I was not persuaded by Solan's arguments, I found his analysis incisive, thorough, and (a rarity in academic
texts) eminently readable. It is a worthy contribution to the series.
I must add one technical criticism. Although I realize that some legal publications
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still cite references in footnotes, I personally find it irritating not to be able to look up citations in an alphabetized list. I hope that
the next books in the series on Language and Legal Discourse will maintain the standard format of the social sciences that has
characterized previous publications.
Danet, Brenda (1984). "The Magic Flute: A Prosodic Analysis of Binomial Expressions in Legal Hebrew," in Brenda Danet
(ed.) STUDIES OF LEGAL DISCOURSE. Special Issue. Text 4, 1-3: 143-172.
Fish, Stanley (1989). DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY: CHANGE, RHETORIC AND THE PRACTICE OF
THEORY IN LITERARY AND LEGAL STUDIES. Durham: Duke University Press.