Why Clarence Thomas Uses Simple Words in His Opinions

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The law ought to be accessible to the average person, he argued during a recent appearance at Harvard.

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When Clarence Thomas led the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, he fought to make it handicapped accessible. "I firmly believed, how can we talk about all these theoretical issues when there are people who can't even get in the door of the building?" he explained to an audience at Harvard Law School, having been asked about the subject. "One of my best friends was a quadriplegic, and I watched how a two-inch curb was like The Great Wall of China for him."

Then a pause.

"I think we do that with the opinions we write," he said. "We write them in a way that they're inaccessible to the average person." With that fascinating segue, he explained the logic behind his writing:

What I tell my law clerks is that we write these so that they are accessible to regular people. That doesn't mean that there's no law in it. But there are simple ways to put important things in language that's accessible. As I say to them, the beauty, the genius is not to write a 5 cent idea in a ten dollar sentence. It's to put a ten dollar idea in a 5 cent sentence.

That's beauty. That's editing. That's writing.
The editing we do is for clarity and simplicity without losing meaning, and without adding things. You don't see a lot of double entendres, you don't see word play and cuteness. We're not there to win a literary award. We're there to write opinions that some busy person or somebody at their kitchen table can read and say, "I don't agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said."

He went on to recall a legal scholar asking why his opinions are 25% shorter, on average, than opinions by his colleagues. "I said, I think I would say it's editing," he said. "Editing, editing, editing. We do a lot of editing, and it's very aggressive. We eliminate a lot of trivial nonsense. And I do not like cuteness in my opinions. You save that for your own stuff. It is all meat and potatoes."

His priorities were presumably shaped in part by his upbringing:

I didn't grow up speaking standard English at home...

I grew up with people who were not lettered people, most of whom couldn't read at all. It was not uncommon, when someone was signing something, they would simply make their mark. Or they would take your word for it. Or they would be upset if you asked them to sign a contract because their word was the contract. So in that environment these people, my relatives, my neighbors, treasured education in a way that people who were hungry would treasure food.

 The whole appearance is worth watching:



The quote that was likely most disheartening to his law student audience: "I wound up the court 17 years after I graduated. And I made my final payment on my student loan my third term on the court."


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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