Judge James Boasberg and the art of judicial writing

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 17, 2014 

— U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, in his latest opinion, shows yet again how to write with flair.

A Suits & Sentences favorite, for the consistent wit and style of his judicial writing, Boasberg knows that stories attract readers. He sets the stage, and populates it with real people, before he delves into all that law stuff. It is as a storyteller, then, that he starts his latest:

“On the afternoon of January 18, 2008, Michael Gorbey approached a woman near the U.S. Capitol and asked for directions to the Supreme Court,” Boasberg writes. “He carried a shotgun in his hand, a sword on his back, a bulletproof vest across his chest, and several shotgun shells and hunting knives in his backpack. Gorbey explained that he was on his way to a meeting with Chief Justice John Roberts.”

See how this works?

It begins like a police procedural, with the time reference -- “on the afternoon of” -- conveying a little shadow. Something is coming. The recitation of the guy’s arsenal in the next sentence adds up to a frightening picture, but it is also kind of funny, like a scene written by Quentin Tarantino.

The opening paragraph’s final sentence caps the set-up; again, in a martini-dry manner that’s both funny and scary. Boasberg lets Gorbey speak for himself, non-judgmentally, as the judge describes how the heavily armed man “explained that” he was going to “a meeting” with the chief justice. It’s the neutral tone that allows the reader to fill in the dramatic blanks.

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