Event Title

Critical Discourse Analysis And The Case Of Roper V. Simmons

Location

SU 003

Start Date

19-4-2019 9:00 AM

Department

Linguistics

Session

Session 3

Description

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), an exceptionally fecund branch of sociolinguistics, analyzes actual language, whether written or spoken, to lay bare the implicit power relations that form the foundation of the speech or text. CDA allows us to discern the power relations that exist between the various speakers and writers through a close analysis of the language they produce. A Supreme Court oral argument is a paradigmatic example of speech operating under explicit and implicit power constraints, many of which are strictly codified, while others are expected to be understood and accepted by all those who appear before the Court. In Roper v. Simmons, argued in 2004 and decided in 2005, the stakes could not have been higher: prior to the Roper decision, a number of states within the U.S. were among the very few, if not only, places in the world where the criminal acts of a juvenile could be punished by death. In these states, the juvenile death penalty was still regarded as a legally acceptable punishment, and in 2004, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” did not stand in their way. This study examines the language that was used to make the execution of persons for crimes they committed before the age of eighteen unconstitutional everywhere in the United States. In particular, this study will show that opponents of the juvenile death penalty were required to leave their own views at the door concerning whether the death penalty is ever a just punishment, and to walk a rhetorically very fine line in order to persuade the Justices – the ultimate decisionmakers – that the juvenile death penalty should be abolished. This study will also show that on the one hand, the focus in this case appeared to be determining the meaning of the words drawn from the Eighth Amendment, which forbid “cruel and unusual punishment,” yet on the other, the power dynamic concerning who has the “right” to define the meaning of words, and to interpret the language that has set the meaning of such words in American law, was in fact crucial to the outcome. At the same time, attorneys who argue before the Court must at all times refrain from showing that they understand the nature of the power relations from a vantage point external to their discourse, and must instead maintain the fiction that the only concern the Court has is to arrive at a just and dispassionate ruling in the case before it. A remarkable performance by juvenile death penalty opponents within these constraints resulted in a decision in their favor by the narrowest possible margin: a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court, finally striking down the juvenile death penalty as unconstitutional everywhere in the United States in 2005. I hope to demonstrate that CDA is exceptionally well-suited to gaining insights into the process of legal persuasion in this particular case, and that it provides insights that may not be as readily available using traditional tools of analysis of legal discourse.

Comments

Richard Hallett is the faculty sponsor for this project.

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Apr 19th, 9:00 AM

Critical Discourse Analysis And The Case Of Roper V. Simmons

SU 003

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), an exceptionally fecund branch of sociolinguistics, analyzes actual language, whether written or spoken, to lay bare the implicit power relations that form the foundation of the speech or text. CDA allows us to discern the power relations that exist between the various speakers and writers through a close analysis of the language they produce. A Supreme Court oral argument is a paradigmatic example of speech operating under explicit and implicit power constraints, many of which are strictly codified, while others are expected to be understood and accepted by all those who appear before the Court. In Roper v. Simmons, argued in 2004 and decided in 2005, the stakes could not have been higher: prior to the Roper decision, a number of states within the U.S. were among the very few, if not only, places in the world where the criminal acts of a juvenile could be punished by death. In these states, the juvenile death penalty was still regarded as a legally acceptable punishment, and in 2004, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” did not stand in their way. This study examines the language that was used to make the execution of persons for crimes they committed before the age of eighteen unconstitutional everywhere in the United States. In particular, this study will show that opponents of the juvenile death penalty were required to leave their own views at the door concerning whether the death penalty is ever a just punishment, and to walk a rhetorically very fine line in order to persuade the Justices – the ultimate decisionmakers – that the juvenile death penalty should be abolished. This study will also show that on the one hand, the focus in this case appeared to be determining the meaning of the words drawn from the Eighth Amendment, which forbid “cruel and unusual punishment,” yet on the other, the power dynamic concerning who has the “right” to define the meaning of words, and to interpret the language that has set the meaning of such words in American law, was in fact crucial to the outcome. At the same time, attorneys who argue before the Court must at all times refrain from showing that they understand the nature of the power relations from a vantage point external to their discourse, and must instead maintain the fiction that the only concern the Court has is to arrive at a just and dispassionate ruling in the case before it. A remarkable performance by juvenile death penalty opponents within these constraints resulted in a decision in their favor by the narrowest possible margin: a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court, finally striking down the juvenile death penalty as unconstitutional everywhere in the United States in 2005. I hope to demonstrate that CDA is exceptionally well-suited to gaining insights into the process of legal persuasion in this particular case, and that it provides insights that may not be as readily available using traditional tools of analysis of legal discourse.