Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Flat, flabby and vague"

Adam Liptak reviews the writing coming out of the Roberts court.

The Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is often criticized for issuing sweeping and politically polarized decisions. But there is an emerging parallel critique as well, this one concerned with the quality of the court’s judicial craftsmanship.

In decisions on questions great and small, the court often provides only limited or ambiguous guidance to lower courts.

And it increasingly does so at enormous length.

Brown v. Board of Education, the towering 1954 decision that held segregated public schools unconstitutional, managed to do its work in fewer than 4,000 words. When the Roberts court returned to just an aspect of the issue in 2007 in Parents Involved v. Seattle, it published some 47,000 words, enough to rival a short novel. In more routine cases, too, the court has been setting records. The median length of majority opinions reached an all-time high in the last term.

Critics of the court’s work are not primarily focused on the quality of the justices’ writing, though it is often flabby and flat. Instead, they point to reasoning that fails to provide clear guidance to lower courts, sometimes seemingly driven by a desire for unanimity that can lead to fuzzy, unwieldy rulings.


The court decides perhaps 75 cases a term these days, down from about 150 in the mid-1980s.

Yet the number of words per decision has been climbing. The Roberts court set a record last term, issuing majority opinions with a median length of 4,751 words, according to data collected by two political scientists, James F. Spriggs II of Washington University in St. Louis and Ryan C. Black of Michigan State. The lengths of decisions, including the majority opinion and all separate opinions, also set a record, at 8,265 words.

In the 1950s, the median length of decisions was around 2,000 words.

The opinions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the January decision that lifted restrictions on corporate and union spending in candidate elections, spanned 183 pages and more than 48,000 words, or about the length of “The Great Gatsby.” The decision — ninth on the list of longest majority opinions — was controversial, but the questions it addressed were not particularly complicated.

Long opinions are perilous, said Edward H. Cooper, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “The more things you say, the more chances you have to be wrong and the more chances you have to mislead the lower court,” he said.

There was a time when justices were keenly sensitive to keeping it short. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote a memorandum to his law clerks in 1984 saying that “a frequent and justified criticism of this court is that opinions are too long” and “are overburdened with footnotes.” This can, he said, “leave lower courts and lawyers in doubt as to the law.”

These days, the writing emanating from the court can be bureaucratic and unmemorable.

Blame in part goes to the clerks who write the justices' opinions for them, but I suspect that specious reasoning -- a hallmark of this court -- leads to vague, flabby and flat opinions.

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