January 30, 2019


A  big Trump case hinges on the definition of 'emoluments.' A new study has bad news for him. (Aaron Blake, January 29, 2019, Washington Post)

The study from Clark D. Cunningham at Georgia State University and Jesse Egbert of Northern Arizona University uses a scientific method called "corpus linguistics" that combines traditional linguistics with large sets of data, in the form of contemporary written texts.

Studying 138 million words written between 1760 and 1799, the researchers found more than 2,500 uses of "emolument" or "emoluments." From there, they found:

The word was usually modified either before or after its usage -- much more than an average noun -- suggesting it had a broad meaning that required such specification and clarifying.

Many of the uses concerned personal or private transactions not involving a public official.
The word was often modified using the adjective "official," which would be redundant if that were understood as part of its definition.

It often appeared (35 percent of the time) with other nouns as part of a "coordinated noun phrase," and in many cases involving public officials it was used alongside the word "profit." This suggests it could be something besides a profit.

Perhaps most importantly the study, which was not submitted on behalf of either party in the case, found these coordinated noun phrases often used the word "other" before emoluments. (In fact, the phrase "other emoluments" accounted for one out of every 40 uses of the word, which is far more common than for other nouns.) This suggests many of the words that would proceed "other emoluments" were understood themselves to be forms of emoluments. This would include words like "bounties," "fees," "contracts," "lands," "pay," "clothing," "privileges" and "places."

Taken together, this research suggests that many things constitute an emolument and that Trump's continued acceptance of basically anything from foreign states could be interpreted as accepting emoluments.

The benefit of this kind of study, the authors contend, is that dictionaries are not reliable sources of common usage. "There is no scientific basis for using a handful of definitions written by individual, idiosyncratic dictionary authors and evaluating sixteen sentences, as the District Court did, in order to prove common usage by the population of late 18th century America," Cunningham and Egbert write.

Lawrence Solan of the Brooklyn Law School, who studies both the law and linguistics and has reviewed the new study, said it should strengthen the case for a broader definition of emolument.

Posted by at January 30, 2019 12:00 AM