- Judge Stephanos Bibas argues for succinct rulings to maintain public trust
- Bibas to other judges: “Try to be on Twitter less than you otherwise would”
(Reuters) – A federal appeals court judge on Wednesday argued his judicial peers too often succumb to a “judges gone wild” mentality of writing “show off” opinions that may trend on Twitter but risk alienating the public instead of being persuasive.
U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas, an appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said judges should focus more on writing “in way that ordinary citizens can understand,” during a lecture at Harvard Law School.
“Citizens don’t read many opinions, but when they do, accessibility is crucial,” he said at an event hosted by the Harvard chapter of the conservative Federalist Society. Clear writing “also constrains the power of politicians or talking heads to shape or warp the narrative.”
As an example of how to write clearly for the public, he pointed to his own decision after the 2020 election rejecting a bid by Trump’s campaign to block now-President Joe Biden from being declared the winner of Pennsylvania over unproven claims the election was unfair.
“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious,” Bibas wrote. “But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
He wrote that on page one, making “it a little bit harder to lie” about what the court did, he said. Bibas said rulings like that can show “that we judges aren’t just politicians in robes.”
Bibas, who has delivered a version of this lecture at other law schools before, called out judges who write “result oriented” opinions focused on “what seems right, which all too often boils down to the judge’s own policy preferences.”
But he said judges also fall prey to other mistakes in writing opinions, including by filling them with distracting jargon, bad jokes and pop culture references, such as Star Wars in one case, rather than delivering “clear and succinct” rulings.
“For the show off, it seems to be all about the judge’s musings, even the judge’s ambitions to be noticed,” Bibas said. “‘Look at me, look at me, I’m so cool.’ That is not authoritative. It is even disrespectful.”
Asked by a student how judges feel when a big ruling like his election decisions garners them “newfound fame,” Bibas said “the kind of cheerleading you get from Twitter is really dangerous,” yet some judges seem to seek that attention.
“Try to be on Twitter less than you otherwise would,” he said. “Try not to be searching for the feedback or the plaudits or anything else. Just focus on the craft and find as much internal satisfaction in the craft of judging and writing as you can.”
It is a dangerous tool to use. The best way to use it is in oral pleadings, taking your cue from the judge.