Parsing the Constitution

Some of the most delightful moments for an ex-linguistics student in law school are when legal analysis clearly intersects with linguistic analysis. That connection was part of what drove me to come to law school. This semester, for me, that close relationship has appeared most often in Contracts and Constitutional Law, two fields which depend heavily on the parsing of text to divine original and apparent meaning.

Seth Barrett Tillman, currently a lecturer in the Department of Law at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Ollscoil na hÉireann, Má Nuad) and previously an attorney and law professor in the United States, has written extensively on the interpretation of clauses in the U.S. Constitution.

In a piece that appeared in the American Journal of Legal History in 2010, Nora and Seth Tillman put forth the argument that our modern understanding of the words shall, may, and will in the Constitution are not consistent with their usage in the late 18th century, when it was written.

[W]here a word once had multiple meanings, but only one variant is now remembered and understood, we may be seriously mistaken when we ascribe near certainty to our understanding of how a constitutional term was used.

As we understand it, prevailing eighteenth century American usage, distinguished shall (indicating futurity) from will (indicating the emphatic tense), as it is still spoken in Anglo-English. Whereas today, we Americans conjugate will as “I will, you will, he will,” and shall as “I shall, you shall, he shall,” in the eighteenth century, the dominant American usage (following southern English standards) was will (I will, you shall, he shall) and shall (I shall, you will, he will).

[W]e suggest that standards … may have been of import to [the drafters], and, for that reason, knowledge of those (long moribund) standards may be a useful tool with regard to determining original public meaning …

It’s a short, fascinating piece. Read it here: Nora Tillman & Seth Barrett Tillman, A Fragment on Shall and May, 50 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 453 (2010). (Opens PDF.)

Tillman also debated Northwestern Law Professor Steven G. Calabresi in 2008 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review PENNumbra. Tillman argues that the Constitution did not require Barack Obama to relinquish his Senate seat upon inauguration as President.

He bases this argument over the precise definition of the word “officer” and whether the President falls into that category, drawing upon Article II, § 4 (the Impeachment Clause), Article II, § 3 (the Commissions Clause) and Article I, § 9, clause 8 (the Foreign Emoluments Clause) to make his point.

Calabresi rebuts, noting that the rub for Tillman’s argument rests in Article I, § 6, clause 2.

A fun read. Find it here: Seth Barrett Tillman & Steven G. Calabresi, Debate, The Great Divorce: The Current Understanding of Separation of Powers and the Original Meaning of the Incompatibility Clause, 157 U. PA. L. REV. PENNumbra 134 (2008). (Opens PDF.)

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