August 29, 2005

Hoping for better written Supreme Court opinions.

Stories like this, about John Roberts's attention to editing and writing style, have inspired me to hope for far better written Supreme Court opinons in the future. I've also gotten in touch with depth of my displeasure over the writing in Supreme Court opinions, which it is my job to read and to make other people read.

From the linked article:
Careful wording is "part of his approach to the practice of law," said David G. Leitch, the general counsel to the Ford Motor Company, who overlapped with Mr. Roberts at the law firm Hogan & Hartson and at the Justice Department in the 1990's. Something as minor as punctuation style could cause Mr. Roberts to demand revisions; longer debates "over the way certain sentences were phrased and the possible unintended meaning of certain phraseology" were a hallmark of his style, Mr. Leitch said.

"Judge Roberts always viewed it as a point of pride that we really strived to make everything in our briefs perfect," Mr. Leitch said. "Not that we always achieved it. But he was a stickler for everything, from spacing errors to the formation of quotation marks to grammar, and to the actual construction of arguments. So it was definitely an intense process."

In Judge Roberts's view, he said, "your brief writing conveys not only your argument to the court, but it also conveys a sense of your credibility and the care with which you put together your case."

The writing of lawyers does indeed convey an important message about the quality of their argument to the court. By the same token, the writing of judges conveys an important message to the lawyers and others who are thinking about how much to respect the work of the courts.

The bloated, flabby, obfuscatory writing, strewn across multiple opinions has wearied readers for two decades. Justice Roberts will bring us crisp phrasing, clear reasoning, and single opinions for the Court — I hope.


Jack Roy said...

Bah. Goebbels had impeccable grammar, you know.

Seriously, as a fellow former Managing Editor myself, I take a small bit of pride in the kind of anal retentive nit-picking that Judge Roberts appears to share with me, although he's almost certainly much better at it.

Heh heh. I wonder if the Democrats on Judiciary will respond to this by demanding that the Whte House release Roberts's college English lit compositions?

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eddie said...

Does anyone have a clue what DeanBerry's comment is about, or care?

Jack Roy said...

As I care for myself I must care for all mankind, or something. I think Donne said that.

Anyway, Gog and Magog are in the Bible somewhere. Grog is what sailors drink. Magoo was a blind man on cartoons. And I think that makes about as much sense as Dean Berry. (Ooh! I wonder if he's related to Frankenberry....)

Troy said...


Unfortunately I do know what deanberry is talking about. You see he is a "fringe" branch of a weird conglomeration of far-right (making neocons and paleocons look like commies) politics and fringe theological interpretation os the Books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation; end-times eschatology. He is the cousin of snake handlers, Randall Terry-style (Operation Rescue) anti-abortion protesting and that a-hole "godhatesfags" guy that is protesting at GI funerals.

I'm a conservative Christian and I find deanberry despicable -- if he is sincere and is aligned with whom I think he is he shouldn't so ardently look forward to the end. Not only does he think that will make you repent, but he wants you to buy his record too.

SCOTUS opinions, I gave my undergrad students in Con Law a bunch of Holmes, Jackson, Frankfurter, et al. to read and brief and they understood them better than some of today's opinions. Come to think of it... so do I.

the Rising Jurist said...

More to the point, deanberry is comment spamming to get traffic to his site. His comment should be destroyed by Ann accordingly.

As for opinions, I wish everyone saddled with that task would take the time to craft their words. I am one of those people who likes to offer the judiciary a bit of reverence and well-worded opinions help me maintain the illusion.

Eddie said...

I just don't want to be a part of Gog and Magog... LOL.

Troy said...

Eddie... exactly. Yeah.. he's just glomming onto Ann's fabulousness to sell records.

Crank said...

Can we add a discouraging word here for Justice Breyer's bizarre crusade against footnotes? I sympathize with his notion that opinions should be more accessible to non-lawyers, but banning footnotes actually pushes more tangents into the text, leading at times to oddly fractured syntax.

Ann Althouse said...

Okay. I destroyed that thing. Wasn't that fabulous!

me said...

I think law clerks are probably responsible for 90 percent of the final product. So I doubt a new appointee will do much.

Ann Althouse said...

Saul: This is what I find intolerable. I expect an improvement with Roberts.

Crank said...

Blaming the clerks is a non-starter. I work at a big firm, and a senior partner who only touches a brief once, and that after a complete draft has already been written, can still have a lot of influence on how it's written. Judges should be able to manage the same. And certainly Scalia is proof that Justices can have opinions that speak in a distinctive style.

More problematic is that SCOTUS majority opinions, by definition, need at least five votes, and I suspect that leads to lowest-common-denominator committee draftsmanship.

ziemer said...

i tend to agree with a professor at marquette i spoke to recently.

he blames computers. when somebody had to type every word, and do it perfectly, or do it over, judges didn't throw in as much unnecessary surplusage as they do now (by way of example, do you see how the word "unnecessary" is unnecessary in this sentence?)

when i was young, i could type 60 words per minute, on an electric typewriter, sans typos.

now i type about 40 words a minute, on a computer, with boatloads of typos. but i can correct them so easily, i don't care.

i suspect that the ease with which typos can be corrected has more to do with the length, and decrease in substantive content (and wit, too), of court opinions than does the input of clerks.