Ambiguity About Ambiguity: An Empirical Inquiry into Legal Interpretation, by Ward Farnsworth (BU), Dustin Guzior (BU), and Anup Malani (Chicago) (forthcoming in Harvard's relatively new Journal of Legal Analysis), reports results from an interesting experiment on 1,000 law students who were asked to assess their impressions about whether a statute was "ambiguous." An excerpted abstract follows:
paper investigates the crucial and analytically prior question of what
ambiguity in law is. Does a claim that a text is ambiguous mean the
judge is uncertain about its meaning? Or is it a claim that ordinary
readers of English, as a group, would disagree about what the text
To demonstrate, we developed a survey instrument for exploring determinations of ambiguity and administered it to nearly 1,000 law students. We find that asking respondents whether a statute is “ambiguous” in their own minds produces answers that are strongly biased by their policy preferences. But asking respondents whether the text would likely be read the same way by ordinary readers of English does not produce answers biased in this way. This discrepancy leads to important questions about which of those two ways of thinking about ambiguity is more legally relevant. It also has potential implications for how cases are decided and for how law is taught."
To assess possible "law school effects," future researchers might survey law students on their first day of law school and then re-survey the students just prior to their law school graduation.