Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Justice Scalia on Vocabulary

The Business Insider reports that Justice Scalia gave an attorney arguing before the Court a quick lesson on word usage:
Randolph "Dolph" Barnhouse was arguing that a city government may not bring a RICO suit to recover uncollected taxes on cigarettes shipped from low-tax jurisdictions to higher tax jurisdictions. He was in the first few minutes of his argument when he made a small slip-up.
He "slipped up" when he used the word "choate." Justice Scalia promptly corrected him:
"There is no such adjective -- I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as 'choate.' There is 'inchoate,' but the opposite of 'inchoate' is not 'choate.'"
Interesting. One of the commenters in the linked thread disagrees with Justice Scalia's assessment of the poor lawyer's vocabulary:
Justice Scalia is wrong. Choate is a perfectly acceptable legal term, and is defined in Black's Law Dictionary: "choate (koh-it or -ayt), adj. 1. Complete in and of itself. 2. Having ripened or become perfected. . . ." Scalia himself concurred in an opinion in which the term "choate" is used [numerous] times, with no objection from him about the use of the word. United States v. Estate of Romani[], 523 U.S. 517 [(1998)].
Is the commenter right? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Law provides this definition:
Main Entry: cho·ate
Pronunciation: 'kO-&t, -"At
Function: adjective
Etymology: back-formation from inchoate
: being complete and superior to subsequent liens —see also choate lien at LIEN —compare INCHOATE —cho·ate·ness noun
This definition--like the one in Black's--seems to confirm the commenter's conclusion that the Justice is incorrect. I open the (useless?) debate to our readers.


  1. Justice scalia seems arrogant. I would hate to argue in front of him.

  2. Right or not, he's a dick for bringing it up like that. Save it for your next legal writing book, Nino.

  3. I think he's wrong on this. I have heard choate used numerous times in the property context.

  4. Who cares anyway, this guy is unrelenting. I can't wait until he retires.

  5. Notice it's "back formation." Which means, as Scalia said, that "choate " is assumed to be the root but is not.

  6. 9:34, what does that mean?


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