Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Language of the Court

Our colleague Fred Shapiro, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, is quoted in Adam Liptak's article in The New York Times on possible picks to replace retiring Justice David Souter. Mr. Shapiro "asked constitutional law scholars for memorable quotations from ... Souter. ... [and] got only four responses. One was about television coverage of the court ... [a]nother concerned the limited pleasures of reading legal briefs." Some commentators believe that Justice Souter's less than compelling writing style might be one of the factors that has contributed to his limited influence on the Court.

Legal scholars have praised Justice Souter's care, candor and curiosity. But they have said that he was, by temperament and design, a low-impact justice devoted to deciding one case at a time, sifting through the facts and making incremental adjustments in legal doctrine to take account of them. Other justices have had more impact, gaining influence through personal and intellectual persuasion.

According to Mr. Shapiro, today's Supreme Court will not be remembered for the eloquence of its justices. He goes so far as to call it "eloquence challenged," and says that Justice Souter is far from unique.

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