LINGUIST List 5.377

Thu 31 Mar 1994

FYI: Linguistics and a Supreme Court case, NPR E-mail addresses

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  1. Jeffrey Kaplan, Linguistics and a Supreme Court case
  2. Rudy Troike, NPR E-mail addresses to protest bias against Southern speech

Message 1: Linguistics and a Supreme Court case

Date: Mon, 28 Mar 94 14:43:24 PSLinguistics and a Supreme Court case
From: Jeffrey Kaplan <>
Subject: Linguistics and a Supreme Court case

Subscribers to LINGUIST may be interested to know that recent
collaborative research on linguistic issues in a legal case on appeal to
the U.S. Supreme Court, conducted by a legal scholar (Clark Cunningham of
Washington U. in St. Louis) and three linguists (Judith Levi of
Northwestern, Georgia Green of Illinois, and Jeff Kaplan of San Diego
State) and submitted to the Court before the Court's decision, may have
had a major influence on the Court's decision.

In U.S. v. Granderson, a 7-2 opinion handed down on March 22, the Court
held that Ralph Granderson, a former postal worker from Atlanta, GA, had
been wrongfully imprisoned due to a misreading of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse
Act. The decision ended years of confusion among the lower courts about
what the U.S. Congress meant in 1988 when it directed judges to revoke
probation for defendants found to be using drugs and sentence them "to not
less than one-third of the original sentence."

In 1991 Granderson pled guilty to delaying delivery of a letter and was
sentenced to five years probation. Had he been sentenced to prison, the
maximum term of imprisonment would have been six months. A few months
later his probation was revoked when a drug test showed positive. The
trial judge, as had many other federal judges, read the 1988 law as
requiring him to imprison Granderson for not less than one-third of the
term of probation, and sent him to prison for twenty months - - more than
a year longer than if he had been sentenced to prison in the first place.
In sending Granderson to prison, the judge said he didn't like what he
thought the law was requiring him to do and told Granderson: "I hope you
appeal and win."

The work on this case was carried out primarily by Georgia Green and Clark
Cunningham, as part of a larger study co-authored by all four to
appear in the Yale Law Journal at the end of this month ("Plain Meaning
and Hard Cases," 103 Yale Law Journal 1560-1625 (March 1994)). The law
required the judge to sentence Granderson to "not less than one-third of
the original sentence." If "original sentence" referred to the sentence
initially imposed, then revoking that sentence and imposing a sentence
"not less than one-third of the original sentence" would reduce the
sanction, not increase it, which, to put it mildly, would not effectuate
the point of the statute. The trial court instead read the statute as
requiring the court to sentence the defendant to a term of IMPRISONMENT
not less than one-third of the original term of PROBATION. That is, the
court treated the expression "original sentence" as if it had one meaning
for computing the term of punishment and another for determining the form
of punishment. Review of the the controlling statutory chapter of the
U.S. Code on sentencing revealed certain co-occurrence differences between
"sentence" in the provision at issue and "sentence" everywhere else in the
sentencing chapter, as if a speaker of one "dialect" had interrupted a
speaker of another. This finding led to a review of the legislative
history of the sentencing statute, particularly a search for evidence that
the provision at issue might have been drafted with an earlier meaning in
mind for "sentence." Prior to 1984, "sentence" in the context of criminal
conviction meant imprisonment, fine, or both; in 1984 probation was made a
type of "sentence" rather than an alternative to a "sentence." This
review revealed that the provision, added in 1988, was literally a
last-minute amendment that did not go through the normal committee
process; its drafter(s) may not have been aware of the 1984 change in the
sense of "sentence" to include probation. Consequently the statute is
ambiguous between a legally implausible reading ("sentence the defendant
to a term of probation not less than one-third of the original term of
probation") and a legally plausible reading ("sentence the defendant to a
term of imprisonment not less than one-third of the original term of
imprisonment that could have been imposed" (6 months)). (A third
"reading," interpreting the word "sentence" differently for computing the
term of punishment and for deciding the type of punishment, was given by
the trial court, several courts of appeal, and the two dissenting Supreme
Court justices.) Tracking this analysis in its opinion, and applying the
legal rule of lenity (ambiguities are construed in favor of criminal
defendants), the Court held that Granderson should have been sentenced to
a minimum of 2 months' imprisonment and a maximum of 6 months. Since he
had already served 11 months, he was ordered released.

None of the nine federal courts of appeals who had earlier interpreted the
provision at issue nor any of briefs filed before the Supreme Court made
reference to this evidence that Congress may simply have made a mistake.
But the Court's opinion, written by Justice Ginsburg, mentions all the
evidence uncovered by Green and Cunningham in reaching the decision that
the provision is ambiguous, so that it should be interpreted in
Granderson's favor. The decision will affect sentencing throughout the
federal courts. Now when a person violates probation by using drugs, the
minimum required prison sentence will be only one-third of the maximum
possible imprisonment for the original offense.

This case probably represents the first time that linguists and legal
scholars have worked together to analyze cases pending before the U.S.
Supreme Court and have made their findings available to the Court and the
parties before the Court's decision.

Individuals interested in more information about this work can contact any
member of the research team at the appropriate e-mail address below:

Clark Cunningham (law, Washington U.): cdcunninartsci.wustl.eduu
Georgia Green (linguistics, U. Illinois):
Judith Levi (linguistics, Northwestern):
Jeff Kaplan (linguistics, San Diego State):

Jeff Kaplan
San Diego State University
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Message 2: NPR E-mail addresses to protest bias against Southern speech

Date: Fri, 25 Mar 1994 00:20:47 NPR E-mail addresses to protest bias against Southern speech
Subject: NPR E-mail addresses to protest bias against Southern speech

Here are some e-mail addresses for NPR. I hope people will follow
Dennis's suggestion of protesting. I may do it, although I'm afraid
my anger will end up making my protest less coherent. Anti-Southern
bias is one of very few things in the world that evoke anger in me.
The only thing that makes me even angrier than anti-Southern bias is
the even more specific anti-Mississippi bias. Like many Southerners,
I feel what is perhaps an irrationally strong attachment to my state.
 --Natalie (

Weekend Edition/Sunday (
Weekend All Things Considered (
Talk of the Nation (
Science Friday (
Fresh Air (

Please note that e-mail to the above addresses cannot be
forwarded to other NPR departments (Audience Services,
Transcripts/Tapes, Morning Edition, Weekday ATC, Weekend
Edition/Saturday, etc.).
For more information, or to order a transcript or tape, call NPR Audience
Services at (202) 414-3232.
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