6 lessons from the writing of Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch

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.”

[RELATED: Distracted audiences? Mind-numbing topics? Cut through the clutter clear, creative corporate writing.]

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.

@byworking

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