When Pronouncing A Case Is Harder Than 'Roe V. Wade'

A law professor and his students have put together a dictionary of Supreme Court pronouncers. It details how to pronounce the sometimes obscure or ambiguous names of cases going back to the beginning of the republic.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Now, a story about Supreme Court cases and how you pronounce their names. Some are easy enough, like Roe V. Wade, but others aren't so clear cut. Is it Bachy or Bachy, Padilla or Padilla? Many a case name has been mangled, so as we hear from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, law professor Eugene Fidell set out to set the record straight.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Fidell and his students at Yale Law School have published a pronunciation dictionary of Supreme Court cases. They've examined all of the case names going back to the beginning of the Republic and they've figured out - or tried to figure out - the correct pronunciations.

EUGENE FIDELL: It's been a marvelous sort of cook's tour of American legal history and also very reaffirming of the melting pot nature of our country because you see cases arise with American Indian names and every single ethnic group that's immigrated to our country.

TOTENBERG: In addition to Fidell, the project included six Yale law students and two linguistic experts. Their task combined all kinds of research skills. Take, for example, the 1916 case of Straus versus a company that spelled its name N-O-T-A-S-E-M-E. Notaseme, maybe? Italian? No. It was a hosiery company and the name was Notaseme, as in there are no seams in this hosiery.

Or how about N-O-F-I-R-E versus United States? No. It's not Spanish. It's Nofire versus United States. Mr. Nofire was a Cherokee Indian. The guiding principle for the Yale dictionary was the pronunciation used by the litigant if he or she were still alive. If not, in addition to other source material, the researchers would call up five people with the same name in the same region.

Take the name B-L-O-U-N-T. Was it Blount or Blount? Three pronounced it Blount, two Blount, so both pronunciations are listed. If the case was argued in the last half century, there's tape of the oral argument. The Supreme Court actually has forms that litigants are asked to fill out giving guidance as to how their name should be pronounced in court, but the forms are routinely destroyed and, in any event, the justices seemed to follow the guidance - shall we say - irregularly.

Here, for example, is Chief Justice Rehnquist introducing a major affirmative action case in 2003.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: We'll hear argument now in number 02241, Barbara Grutter versus Lee Bollinger.

TOTENBERG: That's Barbara G-R-U-T-T-E-R. She actually pronounces it Grutter, but has long since accepted that the case name is known in the legal world as Grutter. And then there's the rare litigant who changes the pronunciation of his name. Accused terrorist Jose Padilla fit into that category. As far as can be determined, he was originally Padilla, then said his name should be pronounced Padilla and, by the end of his litigation, was back to Padilla.

Nina Totenberg - no, that's wrong. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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