Bryan A. Garner

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died six years ago today, on September 12, 2008. The author of novels such as Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and essay collections such as A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again hanged himself in the garage of his California home. DFW was 46.
David Foster Wallace was a lawyer’s writer, if ever one could use that label without intending insult. DFW was not a lawyer, though he famously became friends and collaborators with legal writing expert Bryan Garner. Garner’s co-author Justice Antonin Scalia is also said to be a fan. Countless attorneys who haven’t cracked a novel in years will brighten at the mention of DFW. Analytical, language-obsessed, and neurotic, he may have captured the modus operandi of many lawyers as well as any novelist or essayist could.

David Foster Wallace, especially for a fiction writer, was logical, analytical. He never quite left behind the mindset of the analytic philosophy student he once was. Wallace’s senior thesis in modal logic was published posthumously. His senior thesis in English became his first published novel, The Broom of the System. He wrote lit for STEM geeks and logic nerds . . . including the many STEM geeks and logic nerds who later ended up in law. (Myself included.)

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Bryan A. Garner

This May, Thomson Reuters published the tenth edition of the estimable Black’s Law Dictionary (affiliate link). The most widely cited legal book in the world, Black’s is a must-have for every lawyer and law student.

Henry Campbell Black published the first edition in 1891. Starting with the publication of the seventh edition in 1995, Black’s has been edited by Professor Bryan A. Garner, the noted lexicographer, legal-writing expert, and author of such books as Garner’s Modern American Usage, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (the last two co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia (affiliate links)).

I met with Garner during his recent visit to New York, where he taught his famous legal-writing course to various law firms and government employers. His voice was hoarse from a summer cold, but he generously soldiered through an interview with the help of some tea. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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Bryan Garner

How old is “bench slap”? Should I put it in Black’s Law Dictionary? How would you define it?

– Legal writing guru Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and co-author (with Justice Scalia) of Reading Law (affiliate links), asking on Twitter about a possible addition to Black’s.

(Information about the origins of “benchslap,” after the jump.)

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Federal judges don’t always tell lawyers that their writing is crap, but when they do, they’ll do it in a publicly filed court order. Because while judges have got many a tool in their benchslapping arsenal, a public shaming is perhaps the most useful of them all.

Today’s instance of public shaming comes to us courtesy of Judge Steven Merryday (M.D. Fla.), the same fellow who denied a motion to suspend trial in a death penalty case from an attorney who wanted to participate in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

Let’s jump right in and see what happened, because this judge had a field day with redlining….

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This past Wednesday, Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit delivered the Madison Lecture on Judicial Engagement at Columbia Law School. The lecture series, sponsored by the CLS chapter of the Federalist Society, brings distinguished jurists to Columbia to discuss topics relevant to the federal judiciary and the administration of justice.

(Perhaps we should put “at” Columbia Law in quotation marks; Judge Posner actually appeared via video conference. That shouldn’t surprise, coming from a judge who lists The Matrix as one of his favorite films.)

In his talk, entitled “How I Interpret Statutes and the Constitution,” Judge Posner was his usual candid self. He offered commentary on two recent books about statutory and constitutional interpretation — books that he’s not a fan of.

Yes, readers. There will be benchslaps….

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Justice Scalia (left) and Judge Posner

Responding to a Supreme Court Justice who calls one a liar requires special care in expression.

– Judge Richard Posner, in a cover email introducing his written response to Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent “You lie!” accusation.

(More about this tiff, which we’ve been covering quite closely here at Above the Law, after the jump.)

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Justice Scalia (left) and Judge Posner

I’m not going to get into this whole thing written for a glossy magazine.

– Justice Antonin Scalia, responding to a question about his thoughts on Judge Richard Posner’s somewhat critical review, in the New Republic, of the justice’s new book, Reading Law (affiliate link).

(We attended Scalia’s talk, which took place this afternoon and was sponsored by the New York City Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society. Additional highlights from the eminently quotable justice’s remarks, after the jump.)

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Justice Scalia (left) and Judge Posner

Over the past few months, Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Richard Posner have been trading benchslaps. The most recent clash got going a few weeks ago, when Judge Posner wrote a harsh review for the New Republic of Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner’s new book, Reading Law (affiliate link).

Scalia surrogates rushed to the justice’s defense. One of his former clerks, Ed Whelan, wrote a series of posts for the National Review’s Bench Memos blog in which he criticized the Posner review. Justice Scalia’s co-author, Professor Garner, also responded forcefully to Judge Posner (who in turn responded to Garner, again in the New Republic).

But the justice himself remained silent on all of this. When we reached out to both judges about the apparent tiff, Judge Posner denied any personal animosity, but Justice Scalia declined to comment.

Now Justice Scalia has broken his silence. And His Honor seems none too happy with Judge Posner’s book reviewing skills….

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Left to right: Bryan Garner, Antonin Scalia, and Richard Posner

The jurisprudential wrestling match between Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Richard Posner is quickly turning into a WWE tag team battle royal. Tagging in to help Justice Scalia: Bryan Garner, one of the foremost authorities on legal writing and legal language. Professor Garner, of course, is Justice Scalia’s co-author on Reading Law (affiliate link).

Professor Garner is not happy with Judge Posner’s treatment of the book. Let’s hear what he has to say — and also speculate on how the Posner/Scalia tiff might affect Posner’s feeding of law clerks to Scalia….

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Justice Scalia (left) and Judge Posner

In case you missed it, you should check out Judge Richard Posner’s recent review of the new book by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner, Reading Law (affiliate link). The review is deeply thoughtful and elegantly written, but a bit… harsh. It’s a definite reverse benchslap.

And it’s just the latest blow in an ongoing slugfest between Judge Posner and Justice Scalia, which we’ve chronicled in our pages. In June, Judge Posner criticized Justice Scalia’s dissent in Arizona v. United States. In July, Scalia saucily responded by saying of Posner, “He’s a court of appeals judge, isn’t he? He doesn’t sit in judgment of my opinions as far as I’m concerned.”

Ouch. These exchanges got me (and others) wondering: What’s going on between these two eminent jurists?

I reached out to both Justice Scalia and Judge Posner with this question: Is it personal?

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