Nitpickers on the Supreme Court

By Amy Beth Miller

“Snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used, not dulling it by misuse. I’m a snoot.”

~Justice Antonin Scalia

I wasn’t surprised this morning to hear that our U.S. Supreme Court justices are nitpickers. I can’t think of another position where careful use of the language is so important.

Nina Totenberg’s piece on NPR and the interviews on which it is based show that the justices adhere to these beliefs common to nitpickers:

  • To write well, read good writing. Several of the justices cite the influence of reading on becoming a better writer. Chief Justices John G. Roberts Jr. said in an interview “The best teachers of writing are good writers who you read.”
  • Provide context. Roberts appreciates a good story with memorable detail in the statement of facts about a case. Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, skips the statement of facts but appreciates a well-written summary of the argument. “I think that it gives you a preview,” he said. “It’s like giving you, you know, what’s going to be on TV next week. If you watch the television program 24, you know what’s going to happen next week.”
  • Submit your writing to fresh eyes. Whether the justices or their law clerks write the first draft of an opinion, it always goes through a rigorous editing process by the other.
  • Be brief (no pun intended). Justice Antonin Scalia told the interviewer that he edits opinions at least five times, and most of his effort is devoted to deletions. “When I edit drafts of my law clerks, most of my work consists not of additions, but of deletions. And when I re-edit my own work, which I do—I go over and over again—I’m usually cutting out words that on reflection seem to me unnecessary.”

We’ll stop there and recommend that if you’re further interested in the justices’ opinions on writing you should watch the interviews Bryan Garner conducted with them or read the transcripts in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing.

What positions do you think are ideal for nitpickers, other than being a Supreme Court justice or an editor?

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One response to “Nitpickers on the Supreme Court

  1. Pingback: Justice Thomas Caught Up In Yet Another Ethical Tangle « The Fifth Column

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