Judicial Gobbledygook: The Readability of Supreme Court Writing

Yale Law Journal Forum (2015)

12 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2017

See all articles by Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law

Date Written: November 19, 2015

Abstract

Writing is the conduit through which courts engage with the public. As such, the quality of judicial writing is an important element of the legal system — it determines the clarity of the rules that we live by. Yet, on an empirical level, we know relatively little about it. A court watcher’s gut reaction might be that judicial writing suffers from excess complexity. Indeed, the Federal Judicial Center finds it necessary to encourage judges to avoid wordiness, pomposity, and overly complex phrasing. However, we do not know how well judges heed this advice, or whether the quality of judicial writing has changed over time.

This Essay sheds new light on this empirical darkness. It analyzes the readability of over 6,000 Supreme Court opinions by measuring the length of sentences and the use of long, polysyllabic words. The data shows that legal writing at the Court has become more complex and difficult to read in recent decades. On an individual level, writing style tends to become somewhat more complex the more years a Justice spends on the court. We also see substantial variation among opinion writers — with Justices Scalia and Sotomayor penning particularly wordy opinions — and a tendency for conservative opinions to be somewhat more difficult to read than their liberal peers.

Keywords: Judicial Behavior, Legal Writing, Empirical Legal Research

Suggested Citation

Whalen, Ryan, Judicial Gobbledygook: The Readability of Supreme Court Writing (November 19, 2015). Yale Law Journal Forum (2015), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3000125

Ryan Whalen (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) - Faculty of Law ( email )

469G Bukit Timah Road
Eu Tong Sen Building
Singapore, 259776
Singapore

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