Respect Your Audience

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic quotes Clarence Thomas on why he publishes his legal opinions in simple language:

What I tell my law clerks is that we write these so that they are accessible to regular people. That doesn't mean that there's no law in it. But there are simple ways to put important things in language that's accessible. As I say to them, the beauty, the genius is not to write a five cent idea in a ten dollar sentence. It's to put a ten dollar idea in a five cent sentence.

That's beauty. That's editing. That's writing.

The editing we do is for clarity and simplicity without losing meaning, and without adding things. You don't see a lot of double entendres, you don't see word play and cuteness. We're not there to win a literary award. We're there to write opinions that some busy person or somebody at their kitchen table can read and say, "I don't agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said." [minor edits]
As Friedersdorf noted in his blog post, the above quote comes from an hour-long appearance Justice Thomas made recently at Harvard Law School. I agree with him that the whole video is worthwhile: I was able to listen to it yesterday afternoon while I was doing some less-than-demanding work. I particularly enjoyed Thomas describe his maternal grandfather (starting at 45:00), whom he described as one of his greatest personal heroes. Thomas keeps a bust of him in his office inscribed with one of his favorite sayings: "Old Man Can’t is dead: I helped bury him." (Thomas mentioned at another point that, while his grandfather discouraged sports, which he regarded as a waste of time, he always encouraged the young Clarence Thomas to spend time at the library.)

Friedersdorf says of Thomas that, "His priorities were presumably shaped in part by his upbringing." This is true, but it verges on being a gross understatement. Thomas saw first hand during his upbringing that good, rational people are not always highly educated. His editorial policy reflects that knowledge, and in that way, it is a moving, daily tribute to a heroic man and an act of justice towards those who are like him.

-- CAV

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