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EDITORIAL: Write on

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Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner edits a draft of his writing May 16 at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

“This is a grudge match.”

That is the kind of first line that piques the interest of readers, pushing them to the second sentence and beyond. Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook used it in his opinion for Redwood vs. Dobson in 2007, and, as a result, cast a wider net for more readers.

People paid attention. They might even have enjoyed reading the opinion.

The effect would have been greatly diminished had Easterbrook resorted to the tired, dry writing so common in legal opinions. The judge easily could have planted the seeds for a headache with a sentence such as, “Plaintiff Erik Redwood claims defendant Harvey Cato Welch is legally at fault for Redwood’s conviction of criminal charges of battery, and the subsequent back-and-forth resulted in a variety of unscrupulous behavior on both sides.”

After that exercise in aridity, Easterbrook would have needed to lasso his readers’ eyeballs and yank them to the next sentence.

Instead, the “grudge match” line inspired many in the legal community to pick up on the opinion. Once the attorneys and judges started reading, they found an on-point opinion that laid out practical tips about when a deponent can be instructed under federal rules not to answer a question.

The best way to write an opinion is the subject of some debate, but there is no denying that a concise, no-words-minced ruling that cuts through the unnecessary legalese and posturing is an easier and more enjoyable read, and thus, one more likely to affect more people.

Judge Richard Posner, another member of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted for his often entertaining, candid and succinct writing style, was the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century, according to a January 2000 article by The Journal of Legal Studies.

There is no way his opinions would have inspired nearly as many references if people considered it a chore to read his work. Still, the Easterbrooks and Posners are in the minority.

Many judges still insist it is not their place to unleash creativity, not their job to entertain. But they are adhering to a misplaced sense of decorum, honoring an imaginary rule that limits their audience and turns reading into a dull death march.

Easterbrook’s “grudge match” opinion never was in the running for a Pulitzer. But it was popular enough to become the subject of several legal blogs and a source for 4th Circuit judges, who in the 2012 McKenzie v. Hall decision quoted him, referencing his decision in order to send a clear message that the court would not tolerate motions to strike.

Easterbrook, Posner and others like them understand that their jobs do not end once they have pored over case law and texts to find the fitting answers to legal questions. They know that delivery is just as important as content.

Those who would criticize a creative line such as “grudge match” are correct when they say it is nothing more than a big, shiny hook. But others know they cannot catch a fish without one.


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