Too Many Words: the Burden of Supreme Court Justice Scalia

Pages and pages of civilazation's intentions.

Does this look sleep inducing to you? It does to me. But I'm not an attorney. If this picture causes you anxiety and you're a lawyer, that's like a surgeon who would rather not see blood in the operating room.

[reading is fundamental]
In his questions on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (lovingly called “Obamacare”), Supreme Court Justice Scalia remarked

You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages? And do you really expect the court to do that? Or do you expect us to give this function to our law clerks? Is this not totally unrealistic?

This has gotten a lot of play in the press.  Let’s be honest, who wants to read a bunch of legalese?

Except when it’s your job to do so?

Justice Scalia’s remark reminded me of this scene in Amadeus:

2700 pages sounds like a lot until you actually look at the text.  From the “too many pages” comments in the news, it’s clear that few have. Like most laws, this one is written with very wide margins and only a few lines on each page.  Same technique we used in school to stretch out a single paragraph into a 10 page term paper.

Take a look at House Resolution H.R. 3590 and see for yourself.

See?  Wide margins!  Few lines!

Why do legislators do this?  Well, it’s not to give plenty of room to red ink the bill or make notes on it.  Rather, it gives the document a massive tome-like feel, so you can wave this really thick binder about – like what Justice Scalia was doing – and intone all sorts of political points.  A kind of legal gravitas.

And you can also sit on it if the chair in your chambers is too low.  I’ve been to Washington offices, the chairs are always too low.

(Actually, the final law looks like this.  All 906 pages of it.  Of course, this would make your binder only 1/3 as thick and not nearly as good a prop.  And while it would save some trees, here we are concerned about the health of our citizens and not that of the planet.)

So:  let’s get over ourselves about this page thing, shall we?  We are talking about 8 words per line x 25 lines per page x 2700 pages.  (I’ll give Justice Scalia the benefit of the doubt.  Even though the document you just looked at is 2400 pages long, I can imagine 300 pages worth of amendments.   That’s about one page of political pork for every million Americans.  Makes sense to me.)

So that’s 8 x 25 x 2700.  We are talking 540,000 words in this law.  Tops. If you say it’s more than half a million words, it sounds awfully big, doesn’t it?

But how many words is that really?

Justice Scalia when to a parochial high school.  Catholic to be specific.  Jesuit to be even more. Pretty sure he had to go through the Bible there.

All 780,000 words of it.

That’s right.  The law he is whining about reading is only 70% the length of the King James Bible.  And remember that this law (if you actually look at it) is full of the usual legal boilerplate type stuff, making the actual content smaller still.  (Naturally, the Bible is the word of God while this law only affects significant legal precedent for the oldest Constitutional Republic in the world, not to mention the future of the American healthcare system, but let’s not get too caught up in specifics.)

Supreme Court Justice Scalia surrounded by books.

Supreme Court Justice Scalia in front of a lot of books. Thick books. Books with lots and lots of words. He's probably getting a rash from the proximity to all of them. It's easy to imagine him scratching himself under that robe while he is at the bench.

Justice Scalia had to do even more reading after high school.  After all, he became a lawyer.  Do you know how much reading one does in law school?  A lot.  From casebooks each thicker than the Bible. There is a long tradition of reading and the law.  This may explain why official portraits of judges and lawyers are always in front of books. It implies you read them all and are now quite learned. How can you look learned by holding a Kindle?  Hell, a Kindle makes an even worse prop than a mere 906 page law!  You can’t possibly feel the full weight of civilization when you can hold it all in one hand.  Even 45 years ago, Star Trek writers knew that if you wanted to show a serious lawyer of the future, you had to surround him with books!

So it’s pretty clear that Justice Scalia had to do a lot of reading of words in thick books to get to where he is today.  And now he is complaining about it?

I’m betting he is just cranky.  Maybe burned out. He turned 76 this month.  Who the hell wants to read legalese in its full glory at that age after doing it for more than 50 years?  I can see why he is whining about it.


It is his job.  One that the American people pay him to do. In fact, one that the American people are counting on him to do.

So yes, Justice Scalia, we really do expect you to actually read the full law. Or, at least go back and read your Bible.  It contains a book called “Judges” which may remind you of the tradition you are allegedly part of.

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2 thoughts on “Too Many Words: the Burden of Supreme Court Justice Scalia

  1. You kinda cheated — you actually looked at the pages rather than taking Scalia’s word for it. You’re like the kid who claimed that the Emperor’s new wardrobe was less than minimalist.

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