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Justices using more words

iStock image used with permission.

As the October 2010 term draws nearer to its close, U.S. Supreme Court opinions are getting wordier. At the same time, the justices appear to be parsing those words much more by making frequent uses of dictionaries in their analyses.

As USA Today’s Joan Biskupic points out, the later in the term, the longer opinions tend to be. That’s because the longer it takes for a case to be decided, the more likely it’s due to the fact that there are concurring and dissenting opinions involved, which take longer for the justices to write, review and revise.

But justices are not tossing about words willy-nilly. Instead they tend to scrutinize them, with the aids of the usual legal precedents and authorities, and also by using good ol’ dictionaries. In a recent case, notes The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, Chief Justice John G. Roberts even consulted a dictionary for the definition of the word “of.” (It means what you think it means, he pointed out.)

Among the likely wordy and well-defined opinions we are still awaiting from the court:

• A decision in the latest installment in the ongoing battle between the estates of the late pinup and reality star Anna Nicole Smith and her late husband and oil magnate J. Howard Marshall, which turns on the application of bankruptcy law (Stern v. Marshall);

• A ruling on whether defendants who are sentenced pursuant to a plea agreement can later seek a sentence reduction under amended U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (Freeman v. U.S.);

• A decision on whether a court may consider factors such as age in determining whether a youth is in police custody and therefore entitled to Miranda rights (J.D.B. v. North Carolina);

• A ruling deciding whether state law failure-to-warn suits against generic drug makers are preempted by federal law? (Pliva v. Mensing); and

• The much-anticipated decision of whether more than 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees may be certified as a class in what could be the nation’s largest class-action gender discrimination suit (Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes).