Good advice for summer associates
Next up on my reading list

Some enjoyable reading (for me, anyway)

Because I practice law in Louisiana, I rarely need to read decisions from the U.S. First Circuit, which means that I rarely get to read decisions written by Judge Bruce M. Selya. But I came across one a few days ago, and was immediately struck by Judge Selya’s use of interesting words and figures of speech. The decision is Colasanto v. Life Insurance Co. of North America, 100 F.3d 203 (1st Cir. 1996). It includes these gems:

  • “Upon a close perscrutation of the record, the parties’s briefs, and the applicable law, we discern no error.”
  • “The appellant contents that Farley filched the papers; Farley claims that Colasanto gave them to him.”
  • “The standard of review referable to a trial court’s refusal to order judgment as a matter of law is set in cement.”
  • “Transfer of ownership is a critical datum ....”
  • “The appellant then tries to hoist this asseveration by its bootstraps ....”
  • “There are two visible flaws in the fabric of the appellant’s thesis.”
  • “At the very least, a reasonable jury, faced with this concatenation of circumstances, had a right to conclude ....”
  • “Second, the Rule 56(d) approach is little more than stultification by tactical semantics.”
  • “Applying the principles gleaned from these cases, we descry no error here. It is plain as a pikestaff that Colasanto’s use of the word ‘executor’ in response to line 10(c) creates an ambiguity.”
  • “We need not paint the lily. On this scumbled record, a rational jury could have inferred ....”
  • “We add here only that, on both issues, the totality of the evidence does not suggest ... that justice miscarried ....”
  • “The appellant contends that the trial court blundered ....”
  • “In a last-ditch effort to stem the tide ....” [At first I thought this was a mixed metaphor. It’s not. Imagine someone digging ditches in the shoreline to divert the waves.]
  • “The preconditions for deployment of Rule 804(b)(5) are formidable.”

Some may argue that a writer should avoid using words likely to send the reader in search of a dictionary. But I didn’t mind Judge Selya’s choice of words in this decision. Although some of these words are new to me, the context provided the general idea. And reading new and interesting words is the only effective way to learn them.

Another thing: I like individuality in writing. I have a hunch that words like these come naturally to Judge Selya, and that they are expressions of his individuality. If you want to emulate Judge Selya, don’t reach for obscure words. Use the words that come naturally to you.


Jerry Stephens

Judge Selya has long been one of the better writers on the federal bench. I would agree that, on occasion, his word choice may get in the way of easy reading and comprehension. But he's never boring. I once had the chance to visit with him about some of the phrases he included in his writing. He had written, in one his opinions, the phrase "more cry than wool" (USA v. Ortiz-Alarcon, 917 F2d 651). Judge Selya mentioned that the phrase was just one he had picked up earlier in his life. He also mentioned that he had also used the variant phrase, "more bleat than wool." He has also written of "legislation not created in a vaccuum" and "singing a tune the way the courts want." Judge Selya's conclusion to all this is just that he enjoys a little creative writing. By the way, there was an interesting article about Judge Selya in the March 27, 1992 "New York Times." In that article, he was quoted as saying that "I don't go looking for unusual words to use, but if it pops in my mind I don't withhold it simply because it may not be in common usage."

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