Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Federal judge complains about lengthy judicial opinions.

In a decision from the Eleventh Circuit yesterday denying a criminal defendant's habeas petition, Judge James Larry Edmondson complained about the increasing tendency among judges toward lengthy opinions. The majority opinion in the case stretched to 104 pages; Judge Edmondson voiced his concerns in a separate, and much shorter, concurring opinion.  According to the judge, long judicial opinions increase the risk that an appellate court will find reversible error, they make it more difficult for readers to understand the decision's import and, finally, they reflect the lack of effort that is otherwise needed to produce pithier precedents.  In support of his latter point, Judge Edmondson referenced Mark Twain, relying on a quote that's worth passing along to students:  “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has the story along with an excerpt of Judge Edmondson's concurring opinion in the case.

Judge Edward Earl Carnes, writing for the majority in this Sept. 13 ruling, burned 104 pages denying a death-row prisoner’s habeas petition. We aren’t passing judgment on Judge Carnes. We’ve never authored an opinion.

But Judge Edmondson, who has, refused to join the majority opinion, if for no other reason than what he saw as its excessive length.

From his concurring opinion:

In my experience, longish opinions always present a strong possibility of error lurking somewhere in the text. That the opinion writer is a skilled and careful judge does not eliminate the risk. Furthermore, no one wishes to join in an opinion that they do not understand fully. It is hard, time-consuming, painstaking work for the panel’s other judges to check long opinions, line by line, cited case by cited case. (Of course, always other cases are awaiting decision and also demand the judges’ time and attention.) Moreover, long opinions, even if correct in every detail, generally make it harder for readers to separate a holding from dicta (or less than dicta: words only of explication and nothing more). The confusion of holding and dicta makes correctly deciding future cases more difficult, when judges are looking back for precedents. Sometimes, the oddest bits are lifted out of opinions — especially the longer ones (often words as to some peripheral point) — and later quoted flatly as law: as if someone was quoting a statute.


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