Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
(I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.)
~Blaise Pascal, Provincial Letters: Letter XVI
Scott Greenfield over at Simple Justice writes today about a prolix judgment from the 11th Circuit:
Via Lowering the Bar, the 11th Circuit’s majority decision in Holsey v. Warden clocks in a 104 pages. No, I have no clue what it says, as there is no way in hell I plan on reading 104 pages just to see if it’s anything that matters to me. Sure, I read the first sentence, that “[i]n the early morning hours of December 17, 1995, Robert Wayne Holsey robbed a convenience store in Milledgeville, Georgia, and fled,” and sure it was certainly enticing. But if I’m going to spend my time reading, this isn’t what I want to read.
Even the concurring judge has a problem with the opinion.
Although he concurred in the result of the decision last Thursday in Holsey v. Warden, Judge J.L. Edmondson of the 11th Circuit wrote separately to say he did not join in the opinion itself only because, at 104 pages, it was just too long:
I stress that [my refusal to join is] not because the opinion says something that I am sure is wrong or I am sure is even likely wrong. I agree with much of the opinion, at least. But the opinion says a lot and says more than I think is absolutely needed.
Was the issue in Holsey so complex, so sophisticated, so difficult as to compel Judge Carnes to write 104 pages in order to explain the decision. Don’t ask me, I didn’t read it. But if Judge Edmondson says so, I’ll take his word for it. As he explains in his concurrence, he just isn’t willing to take the time either.
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.)
It’s not easy to write a solid opinion, which explains why so few meet their lofty goal. While many offer sweet rhetoric of the sort that warms the cockles of many an angry commenter here, they neither provide a clear rule nor comprehensible language. Despite the superficial appearance of meaning, they string vague words together that are susceptible to any subsequent interpretation as a court might want. And, as Judge Edmondson points out, the more words used, the less clarity they offer.
While brevity is the soul of wit, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, most judgments lack wit, and certainly are short on the soul-o-meter.
Sure, some trials are incredibly long; with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of documents and exhibits, a score of witnesses, and weeks’, if not months’ worth of transcripts.
Still, this doesn’t mean that a trial judge cannot condense the ratio decidendi and forego most of the obiter dicta.Won’t someone please think of the Court of Appeal judges?
Here is my list of the
five six seven longest judgments :
7. The case of Berezovsky v Abramovich (Action 2007 Folio 942, UK Commercial Court, Chancery Div.), involving a colossal battle between two Russian oligarchs, may not be the legal version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but weighing in at 531 pages long (single-spaced), it makes up for in sheer deforestation. [link to summary of judgment via The Telegraph]
6. McConnell v. FEC, 251 F. Supp. 2d 176 (D.D.C. 2003): While the Supreme Court’s decision upholding two principal features of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) sounds boring, imagine reading the U.S. District Court’s palaverous 743-page snooze-fest. [link to judgment]
5. Coming in at a copious 754 pages, the decision the Quebec Superior Court decision in Widdrington (Estate of) c. Wightman, 2011 QCCS 1788 (CanLII) per Marie St-Pierre J. is a judicial tome. The case involved a 16-year long negligence action by investors against the auditors of Castor Holdings Ltd., prompting Madame Justice St. Pierre to ironically quip: “Writing clear and complete but concise reasons represents a titanic challenge.” [link to judment via CanLII)
4. Slightly longer, but no less hefty, is the 800-page decision of The Honourable Mr. Justice Bell in McDonald’s Corporation v Steel & Morris  EWHC QB 366 per Bell J. (a.k.a. “the McLibel case”). Many readers will be familiar with this famous English libel case, pitting McDonald’s Corporation against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as “The McLibel Two”) over a pamphlet critical of the company. Lasting over ten years, it is the longest-running case in English history. [link to judgment summary via BaiLII]
3. The Prosecutor vs. Charles Ghankay Taylor (The Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2010): By far theThe third longest (and most notorious) judgment is the 2499-page long decision in the Charles Taylor War Crimes Trial, which found the former Liberian dictator guilty of aiding and abetting and planning war crimes during the Sierra Leone civil war and convicted Taylor on 11 counts including murder, rape, enslavement and pillage. [link to The SCSL website]
* If anyone knows of any longer judgments, please feel free to comment and share.
H/T to Paul Cutler via Twitter who tweeted this reply:
Lucknow: Sixty years after it first went to court, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court has pronounced judgment in the Ayodhya title suit, saying Hindus and Muslims are joint title holders.
The three-judge bench – comprising Justice S U Khan, Justice Sudhir Agarwal and Justice D V Sharma – ruled in a majority judgment 2:1, that there be a three-way division of the disputed land – one-third for the Sunni Waqf Board, one-third for the Nirmohi Akhara and one-third to the party for ‘Ram Lalla’.
Each of the three judges gave a summary of his own.
Justice Khan pointed to the unprecedented nature of Hindus and Muslims worshipping together for centuries. (Read: Muslims, Hindus worshipped together, says Justice Khan)
And Justice Aggarwal observed that the inner courtyard of the building belonged to both Hindus and Muslims. (Read: Inner courtyard area belongs to Hindus & Muslims, says Justice Agarwal)
The Ayodhya judgment
In an order that runs into over 8,000 pages, the High Court has said that the portion below the central dome under which the idols of Lord Ram and other Gods are placed in a makeshift temple, belongs to Hindus. All three judges agreed that the portion under the central dome should be allotted to Hindus.
(link to judgment)
If there’s a judgment longer than the judicial epic of Ayodhya, then the end is nigh.
- Lengthy opinions from split Eleventh Circuit panel affirming Georgia death sentence (sentencing.typepad.com)
- Judge Concurs to Say Majority Opinion Is Too Damn Long (loweringthebar.net)
- Federal judge complains about lengthy judicial opinions. (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Daily Writing Sample: A Critique of ‘Longish Opinions’ (blogs.wsj.com)