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Judge Silverman and the art of judicial writing

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, at 9:16 a.m.

A wry touch can flavor the driest case, when it comes to judicial writing.

Consider this latest, from Judge Barry G. Silverman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Take it away, Judge Silverman, from the top in the case denoted Aleta Lilly v. ConAgra Foods:

"Some days we are called upon to consider such profound issues as eleventh-hour death penalty appeals, catastrophic threats to the environment, intense and existential questions of civil and human rights, and the most complicated, controversial problems in civil, criminal and administrative law. Today we consider the coating on sunflower seeds."

That's an effective lead-up, setting the contrast to the twist at the end, the punch line. The reader is invited to join Judge Silverman in shaking one's head, marveling at the seeming triviality of some cases.

Sunflower seeds!

As a minor revision, Suits & Sentences would have broken the final sentence off into a separate, one-sentence paragraph; this would set up the punch line just a little bit more, because of the slight pause, the tiny beat, that occurs between paragraphs.

And, for that matter, one might point out that the amusingly trivial sunflower seeds are simply the factual gloss -- the coating, if you will -- on the more important, underlying legal issues at play. But not to quibble, the wit and the voice of this opinion merit attention.


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