TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, May 3, 2018

'Westlaw For Originalism': Big Data Meets The Constitution, Big Data Meets the Constitution in New Originalism Project:

Five Georgia appellate judges visited a Georgia State University College of Law seminar recently to evaluate an innovative new big-data tool for ascertaining the original meaning of oft-contested words in the U.S. Constitution and other historic legal texts.

Law students in the seminar on judicial power came up with results that might surprise some Constitutional originalists: In proscribing ”cruel” punishment in the Eighth Amendment, for instance, the framers’ aim may have been to prevent the state’s abuse of power as much as physical pain.

The students are the first to try out a searchable new database, the Corpus of Founding Era English (COFEA), made up of more than 95,000 documents from the era that Brigham Young University Law School is developing. The COFEA documents encompass newspapers, speeches, novels, diaries and personal correspondence that were produced from 1760 to 1799 during the colonial independence movement and subsequent ratification debates over the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

One criticism of originalism, noted the seminar’s professor, Clark Cunningham, is that it’s impossible to know what people really meant with certain terms back then. “Now it’s easier to,” he said.

“This is revolutionary,” said Georgia Appeals Court Chief Judge Stephen Dillard, himself an originalist. “It’s like Westlaw for originalism.” ...

The COFEA database is the first in the burgeoning field of “corpus linguistics” to assemble such a wide-ranging body of U.S. texts from the founding era of the United States.

Legal Education | Permalink


COFEA? Is that any relation to "covfefe"?

Posted by: Kneave Riggall | May 3, 2018 1:22:57 PM

Paul: thanks for reposting this article about my Seminar on Judicial Power course. Videos with integrated powerpoints of the students' presentations to Georgia appellate judges about the use of corpus linguistics to research original meaning, described in the article, can be viewed on the course home page:

Posted by: Clark Cunningham | May 5, 2018 1:12:40 PM