Discourses in the language of the law

Authored by: Edward Finegan

The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis

Print publication date:  November  2011
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415551076
eBook ISBN: 9780203809068
Adobe ISBN: 9781136672927


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The most dramatic and most often dramatized stage for displaying and observing legal discourse is the courtroom. There judges preside over criminal and civil trials in which the task is to determine the facts and, in light of them and the application of relevant law, to render a verdict or decision. Courtroom trials are witness to opening and closing statements, to direct examination and cross-examination with objections by counsel and rulings by the court, and to jury instructions; they are preceded by examination of prospective jurors under oath, a process known as voir dire, and may be peppered by in-chambers discussions between judge and attorneys; and they often draw to a close with jury deliberations. Television shows treating the law emphasize courtroom drama in criminal cases, and some semi-judicial civil law courtroom shows have large followings, for instance the US program “Judge Judy,” which has been the focus of professional discourse analysis (van der Houwen, 2005). Some domains of legal discourse exercise their strongest impact on litigants, some on jurors, some on attorneys, some on judges, and so on. Appellate court (i.e. court of appeals) opinions exert extraordinary impact on judges and attorneys and are the most widely influential discourses in common law theory and practice. The role of legislation—the literal “language of the law”—is overshadowed insofar as its interpretation by appellate courts constitutes the precedents of common law. Such appellate opinions also suffuse law school classrooms and teach prospective lawyers what it means to use discourse in a lawyerly fashion, to think like a lawyer—indeed, to be a lawyer (Mertz, 2007).

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