Justices and Legal Clarity: Analyzing the Complexity of Supreme Court Opinions

44 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2010  

Ryan J. Owens

University of Wisconsin - Madison - Department of Political Science

Justin Wedeking

University of Kentucky - Department of Political Science

Date Written: June 16, 2010

Abstract

Legal clarity is important to understand and measure because of its connection to the rule of law. We provide the first systematic examination of the clarity of Supreme Court opinions and discover five important results. First, certain justices systematically craft clearer opinions than others. Justices Scalia and Breyer write the clearest opinions while Justice Ginsburg consistently writes the most complex opinions. Second, ideology does not predict clarity. Third, all justices write clearer dissents than majority opinions, while minimum winning coalitions produce the clearest majority opinions. Fourth, justices across the board write clearer opinions in criminal procedure cases than in any other issue area. Finally, opinions that formally alter Court precedent render less clear law, potentially leading to a cycle of legal ambiguity.

Keywords: Supreme Court, opinion clarity, opinion complexity, legal rules, legal standards, cognitive complexity, justices, opinion writing, opinion draft, rule of law

Suggested Citation

Owens, Ryan J. and Wedeking, Justin, Justices and Legal Clarity: Analyzing the Complexity of Supreme Court Opinions (June 16, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1695775 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1695775

Ryan J. Owens (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin - Madison - Department of Political Science ( email )

406 North Hall
1050 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States
608-263-2279 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://law.wisc.edu/profiles/rjowens@wisc.edu

Justin Wedeking

University of Kentucky - Department of Political Science ( email )

1615 Patterson Office Tower
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40506-0027
United States

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