11th Circuit, Death Penalty, Drinking, Federal Judges, Murder

This Federal Judge Wants Shorter Legal Opinions; We Heartily Concur

Let’s see. How many completely unrelated topics can you fit into one federal appeals court ruling? How about a lead defense attorney who drank a quart of vodka during every day of a capital murder trial, a concurring opinion criticizing the majority opinion — not about the case itself, but simply on the ruling’s length — aaaand let’s throw in a Mark Twain quote for good measure.

That should do it! Introducing the ruling in Holsey v. Warden. It’s quite the odd duck, so let’s take a look…

The short version, as explained last week by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (gavel bang: How Appealing), is that the Eleventh Circuit upheld Robert Wayne Holsey’s death sentence for killing Baldwin County Deputy Will Robinson. The long version is that it did so in spite of his lead counsel’s alcohol issues and incompetent performance. The court’s majority opinion, written by Judge Ed Carnes, did so over the course of just over 100 pages.

That’s a tad long-winded, but it’s no War and Peace. It was enough, though, to to inspire Judge J.L. Edmondson to write a concurrence simply criticizing unnecessarily long judicial rulings. Here’s the entire Sept. 13 ruling; Edmonson’s concurrence begins on page 104:

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.

Boo yah! As they teach you in third grade: Keep It Simple, Stupid. No one wants to wade through hundreds of pages of legalese, even hotshot judges (or their clerks). Judges put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

But Judge Edmondson didn’t stop there. He argued that the problem is getting worse and essentially is a factor of laziness. To illustrate, he reached back into American literature, pulled out a nice gem of a quotation, and stuck these comments in a footnote:

I, broadly speaking, do not agree that the length of an opinion necessarily reflects the thought, labor, and care that has been invested by judges in their endeavor to decide the case correctly. The shorter opinions often reflect the greater study and thought leading up to the ultimate decision. Mark Twain touched on a related idea: “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.”

We agree. And because brevity is also the soul of wit, we’ll leave it at that.

Verbose lawyers — take heed. The Eleventh Circuit is watching.

Holsey v. Warden [U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit]
Court upholds cop killer’s death sentence [Atlanta Journal-Constitution via How Appealing]

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