Courts & Crime

D.C. appellate judges and the art of judicial writing

Three opinions issued Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit provide a compare-and-contrast opportunity for those keen on judicial writing.

Consider the all-important opening lines, which set the tone.

Here’s the first one, by Judge Brett Kavanaugh:

“Kenya wanted to crack down on tax evasion. So it enlisted help from the Kenyan public. The Kenya Revenue Authority issued an ad promising monetary rewards in exchange for information about undisclosed taxes. Enticed by that offer, Kenyan private bank employee Peter Odhiambo blew the whistle on hundreds of accountholders with potential tax deficiencies.”

Dig it. See how Judge Kavanaugh uses simple, declarative sentences, rooted in the facts of the touchable world. The details are presented one at a time, allowing the reader to absorb the big picture. There’s not an abstraction or statutory citation to be found, and there is the comforting casual phrasing of “blew the whistle.”

Judge Nina Pillard likewise focuses on the human perspective, and she begins with a bang, as it were.

“Robert Weismiller, a 57-year-old teacher at a public high school for emotionally disturbed teens, started a sexual relationship with his 18-year-old student, Ayanna Blue, in the fall of 2008.”

Now, contrast these readable, people-oriented introductions with the arid background technicalities with which Judge Robert L. Wilkins, starts his decision:

“Under the Trade Agreements Act of 1979 (TAA), 19 U.S.C. §§ 2501–2581, the federal government is barred from purchasing products that do not originate from ‘designated countries.’ See id. § 2512; 48 C.F.R. §§ 25.003, 52.225-5(a) (listing the designated countries).”

You tell me: which opinion gets read by a member of the public?