Semantic Ambiguity in the American Courtroom

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Linguistics is a fundamental component within the American courtroom setting. In the United States, the supreme law itself takes the form of a written language: the US Constitution. The American justice system itself revolves around language. In fact, one might assert that the primary job of any lawyer is to utilize language to win a case. Lawyers must find ways to use language to make a deep impression upon the relevant jury in criminal cases, hoping that their words convince the jury to rule in favor of their side. Additionally, lawyer’s must meticulously scrutinize the language of the law relevant to the case at hand, hoping to find some phrase in the law’s text to bolster the merit of their testimony. Clearly, lawyers are experts at using legal language to their advantage, but are the relevant entities — jurors, translators and defendants — experts at interpreting this legal language? I argue that when entities such as these experience semantic ambiguity relating to the use of legal terms in the courtroom, such ambiguity poses a great risk of skewing the final verdict in a given case.

Any successful criminal lawyer adopts an intentional linguistic strategy when speaking before a jury. A lawyer who adopts a rhetoric infused with legal language might generally be perceived by a jury as possessing a relatively increased knowledge of the law, in comparison to those lawyers who fail to adopt such strategic legal rhetoric. Imagine that a criminal lawyer finds themselves testifying in support of an American citizen who claims that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police officers illegally entered their home and discovered criminalizing evidence. It is likely that a lawyer who intentionally speaks in the language of the Fourth Amendment, using terms such as “secure in their persons,” and “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” will be perceived as having a greater understanding of the Fourth Amendment than a lawyer who simply uses the terms “safe,” or “against looking through someone’s stuff” ( U. S. Const. amend. IV). It is thus evident that the lawyer who speaks in the legal language of the Fourth Amendment is intentionally adopting this rhetoric to prove their legal knowledge to the relevant jury. It is not absurd to claim that the lawyer which the jury believes possesses a better understanding of the law generally ends up on the winning side of the gavel drop.

I have thus argued that successful lawyers certainly adopt a legal rhetoric when speaking before a jury, but I have yet to point out the conflict emerging from such a dynamic. The problem is precisely that the average American citizen who is called to jury duty is likely not familiar with the complexities of the legal lexicon contained in America’s founding documents. In Linguistic Evidence: Language, Power, and Strategy in the Courtroom, O’Barr lists a plethora of words which commonly exist in America’s legal lexicon, but are likely extremely unfamiliar to the average American citizen living today. For example, he highlights the Latin terms “nulla bona” and “corpus delicti,” as well as the French “voir dire,” and “demurrer” (O’barr, 2014). If a jury uses a lawyer’s legal rhetoric as a heuristic for their legal knowledge and the merit of their argument, yet does not actually know the meaning of such phrases in the legal rhetoric, then this lack of knowledge concerning the legal lexicon could skew the outcomes to cases. A jury might simply listen to a lawyer use centuries-old legalistic rhetoric and believe that this signifies the lawyer truly knows what they are talking about, and thus vote in their favor.

In daily conversations, there is a large potential for semantic ambiguity to arise. For example, an individual may tell another individual “I saw a bat in the cave last week.” The word “bat” has multiple meanings in English. It could refer to the mammalian, or it could refer to the tool which one uses to play baseball. The individual on receiving end of this sentence would then undergo a process of bottom-down lexical access to disambiguate the meaning of this word. The individual would use speech recognition to access their mental lexicon and extrapolate the different corresponding meanings for the word “bat.” After extrapolating these semantically different versions of the phonologically-same word from their lexicon, this individual would then utilize sentence processing to derive the semantically correct usage of the word in this sentence. This person could utilize the context of the sentence to realize that the other person was speaking about the mammalian bat. It is likely the individual will associate terms such as “cave” with the mammalian form of the word “bat,” effectively disambiguating the semantic meaning of the word. Even if the other individual fails to successfully disambiguate the meaning of the word “bat” in the other individual’s spoken sentence, then this conversation is a low-stakes conversation which does not pose immense risk. I suppose by misunderstanding the meaning of the word bat, this individual effectively risks missing out on an interesting story told by their peer. Semantic ambiguity is a natural part of language, and is thus certain to occur within the American courtroom setting.

While semantic ambiguity may be permissible in the low-stakes nature of daily conversations, I believe that the presence of semantic ambiguity in the American courtroom is increasingly problematic because the stakes are so incredibly high. Take the example of American capital murder cases involving the death penalty. These jurors are literally deciding the fate of someone’s life. This is the polar opposite of the low-stakes nature present in everyday conversations. Semantic ambiguity in such cases might skew the jury’s final verdict. For example, in cases pertaining to the death penalty Americans are told to consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances relevant to the case. In Language in the American Courtroom, Shuy asserts that this is incredibly problematic because “courts assume that jurors understand these terms in the legal sense” (Shuy, 2007). Shuy proceeds to detail ten capital murder cases in which the relevant jury asked for the definition of these two terms, but were merely told to “use the commonly accepted and ordinary meanings of these words” (Shuy, 2007). According to Shuy, the legal definition of the term aggravating pertains to “acts such as torturing the victims and the defendant’s past history of violent crime” (Shuy, 2007). According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of aggravating is “to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading” (Merriam-Webster). Also according to Shuy, the legal definition of mitigating “includes evidence of remorse, an unhappy childhood, or mental problems” (Shuy, 2007). On the other hand, one definition of mitigating by Merriam-Webster means “to make less severe or painful” (Merriam-Webster). The potential semantic ambiguities contained in the terms aggravating and mitigating highlight a major problem with language in the courtroom. Jurors may effectively make their ultimate decision on a death penalty-related case by referring to semantically incorrect definitions of the terms which they are using to decide a case.

As I stated earlier, when an individual attempts to remove semantic ambiguity from the speech they are processing, the individual first accesses their mental lexicon to extrapolate all possible semantic meanings of an ambiguous term. This is already potentially problematic within the courtroom setting, as jurors may not even possess the correct legal definition of a particular term in their lexicon. Individuals who are not familiar with American law are unlikely to contain the legal definitions of specific, niche terms in their lexicons. Additionally, even if an individual attempts to disambiguate a word’s meaning by processing the sentence in which it was spoken, they may not have a firm understanding of its legal context. This was exactly what happened in the capital murder example which Shuy highlights. Jurors made it known that they were having disambiguating the meanings of the terms “aggravating” and “mitigating” within their relevant legal context. In response, the authorities essentially told them to simply derive the meaning of the terms from the everyday context in which these terms usually appear. The problem is that each individuals’ mental representations of these terms may differ. According to Quine’s “Indeterminacy of Translation Theory,” when these individuals utilize semantic bootstrapping by using a word’s context to disambiguate its relevant meaning, there is the possibility that “some sentences can be translated in more than one way” (Hylton & Kemp, 2020). One individual might possess an entirely different abstract representation of the terms mitigating and aggravating than that possessed by their peers. If the court authorities do not provide the jurors with a specific legal context for these terms, then there is a serious risk that each of the jurors assign meanings to these terms which differ from one another. This lack of clarification concerning the semantic meaning of these terms within their proper legal contexts could ultimately lead to the fate of an individual’s life being skewed by the semantic ambiguities faced by the jury.

I have thus far highlighted the potential problems with semantic ambiguity emerging in American courtrooms when jurors do not possess a firm grasp of the legal lexicon, but have yet to explain the role of semantic ambiguity as relating to the defendant in criminal law cases. In addition, I have thus far assumed that all participants in an American criminal law case are fluent in the English language. This is certainly not the case. According to a 2011 survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau, of those participants who indicated that they spoke a non-English language within their homes, they found that “15 percent spoke {English} ‘not well,’ and 7 percent who spoke English ‘not at all’” (Ryan, 2013). This exemplifies the utter necessity for language translators within the American courtroom. In the US, a defense translator “usually sits next to the criminal defendant and simultaneously interprets” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). This is an extremely critical responsibility in the facilitation of justice. Criminal defendants who do not speak English must rely on a translator to both receive communication from lawyers, judges, and jurors, as well as to communicate their responses to such entities. Translators thus need to possess a firm grasp of complex terms within the legal lexicon, so that they are able to effectively communicate to the defendant what legal concepts are being spoken by various courtroom entities. Someone who possesses little knowledge of American legal system, “should not be expected to accurately convey the meaning of terms such as ‘res judicata,’ ‘Mirandize,’ or ‘double jeopardy’” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). If a translator is unable to remove semantic disambiguation when interpreting for the defendant, then this semantic ambiguity arguably prevents the defendant from the right to a fair trial. It is absurd to argue that an non-English speaking defendant should be expected to communicate their responses to questions involving what they find to be extremely ambiguous legal terms. Sadly, the American legal system continues to accept “the fallacy that any bilingual speaker can be a qualified and competent court interpreter” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). If a non-English speaking defendant finds the usage of a legal term semantically ambiguous, and is unable to receive clarification from a qualified interpreter, then their ultimate fate in a case could be distorted by this underlying semantic ambiguity.

Indeed conflicts emerging from this dynamic have already made their presence in the American legal system. Consider the case People v. Redgebol. Redgebol, a recent immigrant from Sudan, had been residing within the “United States for six months when he was accused of improper sexual conduct with a minor” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). Although Redgebol self-incriminated himself by admitting to such wrongdoing, the evidence was kept from law enforcement because “Redgebol did not knowingly waive his rights under Miranda” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). He spoke little English, and thus a translator was needed for communication purposes when he confessed before law enforcement. The translator provided to Redgebol did speak his native Dinka language, but she “did not understand the role of an attorney or the concept of self-incrimination” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). In Redgebol’s native Sudan, his tribe did not utilize a traditional legal system to settle conflicts. In the African Dinka Tribe, the families of the two individuals engaged in a dispute would meet and the disagreement would be privately resolved. Within the Dinka Tribe’s legal system, “there is no right to remain silent” (McKeown & Miller, 2009). Clearly, Redgebol did not understand these complexities and individual rights pertaining to self-incrimination within the American system and neither did his translator. This semantic ambiguity experienced by Redgbol and his translator relating to the terms used to describe rights against self-incrimination caused the legal authorities to suppress Redgebol’s self-incrimination from the relevant law enforcement authorities. If Redgebol’s translator had clearly interpreted these concepts to Redgebol, then it is likely that the legal authorities would not have suppressed this confession. Thus, the semantic ambiguity experienced by the translator prevented the law enforcement from using Redgebol’s self-incrimination to punish this severe crime.

Law and language are intricately intertwined within the American courtroom setting. The due process of justice revolves around the use of language by various courtroom entities. Although legal language is highly specialized and extremely complex, the language of the law is subject to the same underlying dynamics which underlie language in any setting, including semantic ambiguity. In fact, the complex nature of legal language might even lead to greater semantic ambiguity than that which is experienced by individuals in everyday conversation. The problem is that there is no room for semantic ambiguity in such a high-stakes legal affair. As I have pointed out, semantic ambiguity experienced by jurors and defense translators has the potential to skew the final verdicts in cases. I believe this distortion in the outcomes are not permissible, and greater clarification should be provided to these courtroom entities when facing semantic ambiguity. Many questions still remain, including the level of training necessary for a translator to effectively eliminate semantic ambiguity when describing legal concepts to a non-English speaking defendant. One might also wonder if some languages are more difficult to convey complex concepts of the American legal system than others. Perhaps some languages do not utilize terms which describe particular topics in the American legal system. Concerning potential juror semantic ambiguity, one might ask if it is possible to provide wholly unbiased clarification of ambiguous terms. One thing is certain: when the stakes are so serious, there is no room for the ambiguous.

Works Cited