“Does Obfuscation Breed Obscurity?”

“We have different standards, for what’s a great opinion. I care about the
reasoning. If you ask me which of my opinions will have the most impact in the
future, it probably won’t be that dissent; it’ll be some majority opinion. But
it’ll have impact in the future not because it’s so beautifully reasoned and so
well written. It’ll have impact in the future because it’s authoritative.

That’s all that matters.”
-Antonin Scalia-

Authors: Michael P. Fix and Bailey Fairbanks

Corresponding Author: Dr. Michael P. Fix, Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA), mfix@gsu.edu


In most professions, clarity of writing is considered essential to success with individuals investing vast resources to hone their craft.  The legal community appears reluctant to embrace this. Thus we ask the question, does the quality of writing have an impact on a court’s opinion, and by extent the development of law overtime? Since state high courts play a significant role in shaping the development of the law through their interpretation and implementation of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, we undertake an examination of the impact of the readability of U.S. Supreme Court opinions issued during the 1987-2006 terms on citations to those opinions by state high courts over their 1987-2017 terms. Our results show that the readability of U.S. Supreme Court opinions does impact the frequency they are cited by state high courts. It appears that more clearly written opinions are more frequently cited, thus increasing their potential to have an greater impact on the evolution of the law.


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