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Author profiles Supreme Court justices

Bryan Garner

Whether they know it or not, most everyone knows Bryan Garner’s work. He is after all the editor of Blacks Law Dictionary (since 1995) and the author of numerous books and articles on legal writing.

“He’s prolific. He’s the guru of legal writing,” according to David Voisinet, Appellate Division, Fourth Department law library director.

“Anything he does, we’re likely to buy here.”

Purchase, however, is not necessary in the case of Garner’s 2006-07 interviews of eight Supreme Court justices regarding their legal writing and advocacy preferences and styles. They were recently published by The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing (, part of the Thomas Cooley School of Law in Lansing, Mich.

The interviews have garnered a lot of interest and have been featured on National Public Radio and The New York Times for the rare glimpse they provide of the justices and their proclivities.

“There’s nothing out there quite like this,” said Scribes Editor-in-Chief Joseph Kimble. “We’re very grateful for this (to Garner and the justices). It’s a gold mine of good advice for the profession,” Kimble said.

“It says something we probably knew all along about the importance of clarity, brevity and simplicity.”

Everybody it seems, has their favorite snippets from the answers the justices provided.

If you’ve got a case coming up in the court, don’t use “which” in a brief when “that” will do Chief Justice John Roberts revealed in the interview. Better to write like Justice Robert Jackson and emulate the style of Marbury v. Madison, an opinion “that” Justice Roberts told Garner, has withstood the test of time. 

“You don’t have to be a lawyer to read one of Justice Jackson’s opinions and understand exactly what he’s saying. And that’s very valuable,” the chief justice said.

Some of Kimble’s favorite quotes include Justice Clarence Thomas: “[T]he genius is having a 10-dollar idea in a five-cent sentence, not having a five-cent idea in a 10-dollar sentence,” and Justice Antonin Scalia’s “[G]ood counsel welcomes, welcomes questions.”

All of the justices abhor “legalese.”

Garner was unable to interview Justice David Souter, who said: “There is a broad spectrum of legitimate opinion about the prudence of judges’ interviews, and I’m among the minimalists …”

Justice Souter said he has never been satisfied with his own writing and “would feel presumptuous telling other people what they ought to do.”

Garner started with Justice Scalia in October 2006. Justice Scalia initially declined the request but invited Garner for breakfast and Garner’s persistence paid off. The pair wrote “Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges” in 2008.

In his introduction, Garner said he hoped to make a tradition of interviewing the justices and include the newest ones, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the near future.

“I haven’t asked Justice Kagan yet and I’ve been waiting for Justice Sotomayer,” Garner said before boarding a flight to New York City to conduct a legal writing seminar at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel today. “It’s early in their term but perhaps I shouldn’t delay due to all the attention this has received.”

Garner said he assured the justices that he would not use the interviews for commercial purposes but the interviews could show up in a nonprofit book or in the Scribes Journal, which he founded in 1990.

Garner commended Kimble for ensuring the accuracy of the transcripts in the Journal.

“(Scribes) is, I believe, the oldest leading journal of legal writing and we take enormous pride in trying to make it interesting, lively and useful to the legal profession,” Kimble said.

Garner said he was surprised at the reaction the written product received given the fact that videos of the interviews have been available to law school classes and the public at since 2007.