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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From NPR: Skip The Legalese And Keep It Short, Justices Say

From NPR's Morning Edition --

Skip The Legalese And Keep It Short, Justices Say


Most of the U.S. Supreme Court's work is in writing. The words on the page become the law of the land, but the justices have no uniform approach to the way they do that job. Indeed, each seems to have his or her own inspiration or pet peeve.

A Disdain For 'Legalese' Much of this is laid out is a series of interviews conducted with the justices in 2007 and consigned to obscurity on a little-known website. Now those interviews have been published in the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, and they show some of the justices in an unusually revealing light.

Justice Clarence Thomas characterizes writing his own memoir this way: "like a death wish." And Justice Stephen Breyer concedes that the first chapter of his book, Active Liberty, is so dense that he often advises non-lawyers to "skip it" and read the rest.

All of the justices talk about "legalese" in disparaging terms, and many refer to great fiction writers as masters of language.

"The only good way to learn about writing is to read good writing," says Chief Justice John Roberts. That sentiment is echoed by Breyer, who points to Proust, Stendhal and Montesquieu as his inspirations. Justice Anthony Kennedy loves Hemingway, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn, Dickens and Trollope.

Justice Thomas says a good legal brief reminds him of the TV show 24. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says one of the great influences on her writing was her European literature professor at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov — yes, the same Nabokov who later rocked the literary world with his widely acclaimed novel Lolita.

Many of the justices admit to linguistic pet peeves. Kennedy hates adverbs and disdains nouns that are converted to verbs — "incentivize," for example. Scalia readily admits to being a snoot. "He was a man in love with the sound of words," Ginsburg said. "He changed the way I read, the way I write."

"Snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used, not dulling it by misuse," said Scalia, adding, "I'm a snoot."

That contrasts with Thomas, who, when asked by interviewer Bryan Garner whether he would describe himself as a word lover, replied: "Not particularly. ... I like buses and football and cars."

Thomas noted that he was raised speaking a dialect called Geechee and wasn't comfortable speaking standard English until he was in his 20s.

Read the full transcript here.

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