6 lessons from the writing of Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch

Is the newest member of the High Court a wordsmith of the highest order? Or is he committing crimes against the English language? Ragan issues its landmark ruling.

Stipulated: We are more likely to praise the elegant prose of writers we agree with politically than the screeds of those misinformed dopes on the other side of the aisle.

If that’s true, we at Ragan Communications cannot hope to resolve this year’s brawls and fistfights over the question that divides the republic: How good (or bad) is the writing of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch?

Those on the right, we suspect, will be more inclined to agree with what The New York Times calls the conservative justice’s “reputation for lively, finely tuned prose.”

Those on the left are more likely to be irked by a style that a Slate writer cited by the Times calls “a crime against the English language.”

Either way, a brawl has broken out. The Gorsuch prose question seems to be the most contentious schism dividing the legal community—and the most serious cause of police reports from seedier watering holes, where angry lawyers and appalled writers have been crashing tufted-leather chairs and bottles of 12-year-old single malt whisky over one another’s heads.

A law writer has started a fad on Twitter of rewriting famous opinions in Gorsuch’s style, and a law blog sneers, “Neil Gorsuch Don’t Write Good.” Naturally, a derisive hashtag emerged: #GorsuchStyle.

On the other side, CBS News cited an observer who counters that Gorsuch “has a knack for narrative, he’s clever, he has an appealing style.”

Given the unresolvable divides over matters of politics and personal taste, can these dubiously “United” States ever find common lessons from Gorsuch’s prose? We at Ragan, famed for our bipartisanship, say yes.

Active or ridiculous?

The Times story was pegged to a study by Yale law student and Stanford doctoral candidate Nina Varsava. She used computer algorithms to analyze Gorsuch’s majority opinions from his decade on the federal appeals court, The Times reports. Varsava gave Gorsuch a thumbs-up for informality, varied vocabulary and use of the active voice, among other aspects of prose.

Yet one critic complains that “Gorsuch is a pedantic writer who overexplains things in a way that uses too many words and also ridiculous metaphors.”

Looking for ways to make peace when melees break out over Gorsuch’s opinions? Here are a few takeaways that can be gleaned from Gorsuch fans and critics alike:

1. Write conversationally.

Compared with the majority opinions of Gorsuch’s colleagues on the appeals court, Gorsuch used 3.9 contractions per 1,000 words, while other judges averaged 0.8, the Times reported. He used foreign words and legal Latin half as often. He started sentences with conjunctions such as “and,” “but” and “so” 4.9 times out of every 1,000 words, compared with an average of 1.5.

“Gorsuch’s style is considerably less formal and conventional than average,” Varsava stated, “which likely makes his opinions seem more down-to-earth and less legalistic than other opinions—qualities that might increase his appeal and enable him to reach a wider audience.”

2. Make metaphors meaningful.

A Slate writer scoffs that “since his elevation to the Supreme Court, Gorsuch’s prose has curdled into a glop of cutesy idioms, pointless metaphors, and garbled diction that’s exhausting to read and impossible to take seriously.”

He cites this from Gorsuch: “Chesterton reminds us not to clear away a fence just because we cannot see its point. Even if a fence doesn’t seem to have a reason, sometimes all that means is we need to look more carefully for the reason it was built in the first place.”

Slate responds that the Chesterton allusion is pretentious. Furthermore, the “first sentence is catchy, but the second stomps all over it, bludgeoning the reader with a gratuitous and clunky explanation.”

3. Use lively, straightforward diction.

“Part of Gorsuch’s appeal is that he explains himself using words you don’t need to be a lawyer to understand,” CBS News stated.

The article notes that Gorsuch has likened a legal notice to a basketball bank shot. He referred to ghosts and goblins in a lawsuit over injuries suffered at a haunted house (some sort of amusement attraction, one assumes). One opinion about a decadeslong legal dispute invoked Sisyphus’ eternal quest to push a boulder uphill.

4. Don’t show off.

Even Varsava allows that Gorsuch’s Supreme Court opinions may be more heavy-handed than his appeals court writings. “He’s a little contrived, a little too much,” she says.

She cited the distracting alliteration of the opening line from Justice Gorsuch’s first majority opinion: “Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry.”

For the record, The Times story that reports this is headlined, “#GorsuchStyle Garners a Gusher of Groans, But Is His Writing Really That Bad?”

5. Make it look effortless.

Ross Guberman, an authority on judicial writing, praised Gorsuch’s prose but suggested there are shortcomings in his style.

“Despite all his talents and brilliance,” Guberman told the Times, “he makes writing look hard, not easy, as if he’s fiddling with a sentence and then looking up to see if anyone is applauding the latest line.”

Nobody’s going to applaud. Strive to write with an easy grace just the same.

6. Stay focused.

Interestingly, the same Slate writer praised Gorsuch’s prose just after his nomination, calling him witty and astute, and contrasting his words favorably with the maunderings of President Donald Trump. (The later piece said the quality of the justice’s prose declined after he joined the Supreme Court.)

Where Trump is volatile and distractible, Gorsuch is principled and dexterous. And, perhaps most glaringly, where Trump is rambling and incoherent, Gorsuch is eloquent and compelling—a strikingly good writer who can make the dustiest doctrine seem lively, and the most unpalatable position seem persuasive.

In conclusion, nobody agrees–even with themselves—but there are lessons for us all.

It is therefore the opinion of the court that bars and drunk tanks everywhere must hereafter post this Ragan article in the interests of reducing fisticuffs among unruly lawyers, belligerent wordsmiths and pugnacious political partisans.

It is so ordered.


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