“Words Matter”: Rhetoric, Precedent and Languages in the WTO

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Posted in Major Projects, Projects, Texts & Languages


"Words Matter". K.Pelc 2013.Law is a rhetorical exercise, the unique authority of which rests heavily on its ability to persuade through reasoning. Yet political and economic scholarship studying the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international legal bodies tacitly ignores judges’ use of rhetoric in favour of a directional analysis of rulings. Prof. Krzysztof Pelc (McGill) and Prof. Marc Busch (Georgetown) are seeking to address this shortcoming this through a micro-analysis of the structure of judicial rulings, as part of their SSHRC funded research project “Words Matter”.

Unlike past studies of WTO rulings, “Words Matter” seeks to analyse judges’ linguistic choices by asking how a ruling’s discourse may influence state compliance. In other words, beyond a ruling’s direction, does the language of a particular ruling result in an increased tendency for states to adhere to it? Secondly, what is the effect of a ruling’s wording on its likelihood of being cited by subsequent judges? Conversely, the project also aims to show how judges use rhetorical strategies to defuse political problems, for instance by couching politically sensitive rulings in technical legal jargon, as a means of pre-empting negative reactions on the part of governments.

Using the analytical tool “Wordscores”, Prof. Pelc and Prof. Busch plan to consider WTO Appellate Body rulings as “training texts” that will teach the programme the vocabulary needed to rate the decisiveness of language used within panel rulings. The data gleaned from this analysis will provide the basis for establishing the relationship between legal language and outcomes such as state compliance and citation rates.  Judges’ choice of precedent will be examined using citation-tracking software on the complete WTO corpus of roughly 220 rulings, dating from the institution’s inception in 1995 until the present.

The project is currently in the data-gathering phase, with analysis set to begin next year.  In the future,Prof. Pelc and Prof. Busch hope to expand their consideration of legal language to rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice.

Words Matter

PI: Krzysztof Pelc
Faculty of Arts