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It’s not the hottest toy this holiday season; it’s a tool for legal language lovers. And it is fun and as addictive as a favorite video game. Ever wonder how the phrase “interstate commerce” evolved in usage in U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1791 to 2005? Or, since ’tis the season — how often and where the phrase “Santa Claus” appeared in those decisions? Welcome to the Legal Language Explorer — a serious and fascinating attempt to explore the evolution of the law and legal language using the text of Supreme Court decisions from the first decision of the Jay Court to the last decision of the Rehnquist Court. Some court watchers think Justice Elena Kagan was the first to use “chutzpah” in a decision last term. But the word actually first appeared in a 1998 concurring opinion by (who else?) Justice Antonin Scalia. Just go to: http://legallanguageexplorer.com/. Plug in the word or phrase to be discovered and, voila! A frequency plot appears showing the number of instances per year where the phrase or word was used. Another click reveals the list of Supreme Court decisions in which the word or phrase appeared, and a final click to takes the viewer to each case. An accompanying SSRN paper explains the approach taken by three legal researchers and two complex system wizards: Daniel Martin Katz and Adam Candeub of Michigan State University College of Law, Michael J. Bommarito II of Computational Legal Studies, Julie Seaman of Emory University School of Law, and Eugene Agichtein of Emory University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. (“Legal N-Grams? A Simple Approach to Track the ‘Evolution’ of Legal Language”) As they explain in their paper, “Legal researchers are often interested in the origins of a phrase and its subsequent usage. While context is of course critical to classifying various forms of usage, a simple starting point for a more detailed inquiry is the construction of a frequency plot. While the presence (or absence) of a phrase is a somewhat noisy signal, tracking temporal variation in rates and patterns of usage can provide quick aggregate insights regarding the relative importance of particular legal questions during different time periods.” The creators of Legal Language Explorer focus solely on the language of the Court’s decisions, but, they say, they plan to add a number of additional search features in the near future. Just in case you were dying to know, “Santa Claus” first appeared in an 1858 Supreme Court decision — Chamberlain v. Ward — involving a collision between the propeller Ogdensburgh and the steamer Atlantic. The phrase reached a frequency peak when it appeared seven times in the 1984 decision, Lynch v. Donnelly. Justice Kagan does appear to have the corner on usage of “loosey-goosey,” so far at least. Marcia Coyle can be contacted at [email protected].

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