Hostname: page-component-7d684dbfc8-lxvtp Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-09-26T04:53:42.827Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Determinants of Writing Style on the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2022

Jeffrey Budziak
Western Kentucky University
Matthew P. Hitt
Colorado State University
Daniel Lempert*
SUNY Potsdam
Contact the corresponding author, Daniel Lempert, at


A rapidly burgeoning literature in judicial politics concerns the variation in elements of writing style such as reading difficulty, cognitive complexity, affective language, and informality in judicial opinions. Some of these studies argue that judges strategically alter their writing style in anticipation of reactions from other actors. Others indicate that writing style is a function of judge characteristics as well as case-related factors. We investigate the correlates of writing style in US Circuit Courts of Appeals by analyzing a stratified random sample consisting of 11,771 opinions. Construing style broadly to encompass several dimensions suggested by prior work, we find that case and judge characteristics explain substantially more variance in writing style than do strategic considerations.

Research Article
© 2018 by the Law and Courts Organized Section of the American Political Science Association. All rights reserved.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


We thank Larry Baum, Julian Brooke, Greg Caldeira, Morgan Hazelton, and the reviewers and editor for helpful comments and suggestions. We also thank Brook Spurlock for excellent research assistance. Daniel Lempert acknowledges support from a New York State/United University Professions Individual Development Award.


Anderson, Robert and Alexander, Tahk. 2007. “Institutions and Equilibrium in the United States Supreme Court.” American Political Science Review 101 (4): 811–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baum, Lawrence. 1997. The Puzzle of Judicial Behavior. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Benoit, Ken, Munger, Kevin, and Arthur, Spirling. 2017. “Measuring and Explaining Political Sophistication through Textual Complexity.” Scholar
Black, Ryan C., Hall, Matthew E. K. Owens, Ryan J., and Eve, M. Ringsmuth. 2016. “The Role of Emotional Language in Briefs before the US Supreme Court.” Journal of Law and Courts 4 (2): 377407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Black, Ryan C., Ryan J. Owens, Justin Wedeking, and Patrick, C. Wohlfarth. 2016a. “The Influence of Public Sentiment on Supreme Court Opinion Clarity.” Law and Society of Review 50 (3): 703–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Black, Ryan C., Ryan J. Owens, Justin Wedeking, and Patrick, C. Wohlfarth. 2016b. U.S. Supreme Court Opinions and Their Audiences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bowie, Jennifer Barnes and Donald, R. Songer. 2009. “Assessing the Applicability of Strategic Theory to Explain Decision Making on the Courts of Appeals.” Political Research Quarterly 62 (2): 393407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bowie, Jennifer Barnes, Songer, Donald R., and John, Szmer. 2014. The View from the Bench and Chambers: Examining Judicial Process and Decision Making on the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.Google Scholar
Brooke, Julian and Graeme, Hirst. 2013. “Hybrid Models for Lexical Acquisition of Correlated Styles.” Paper presented at the 6th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing, Nagoya, Japan, October 14–18. Scholar
Brooke, Julian and Graeme, Hirst. 2014. “Supervised Ranking of Co-occurrence Profiles for Acquisition of Continuous Lexical Attributes.” Paper presented at the 25th International Conference on Computational Linguistics, Dublin, August 23–29. Scholar
Bryan, Amanda C., and Eve, M. Ringsmuth. 2016. “Jeremiad or Weapon of Words? The Power of Emotive Language in Supreme Court Dissents.” Journal of Law and Courts 4 (1): 159–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carrubba, Cliff, Friedman, Barry , Martin, Andrew D., and Georg, Vanberg. 2012. “Who Controls the Content of Supreme Court Opinions?” American Journal of Political Science 56 (2): 400412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clark, Tom S. 2009. “A Principal-Agent Theory of En Banc Review.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 25 (1): 5579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Coleman, Brady and Quy, Phong. 2010. “The Language of Supreme Court Briefs: A Large Scale Quantitative Investigation.” Journal of Appellate Practice and Process 11 (1): 75103.Google Scholar
Corley, Pamela and Justin, Wedeking. 2014. “The (Dis)advantage of Certainty: The Importance of Certainty in Language.” Law and Society Review 48 (1): 3562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Corney, Malcolm, Olivier, de Vel, Anderson, Alison, and George, Mohay. 2002. “Gender-Preferential Text Mining of E-mail Discourse.” Paper presented at the 2002 Annual Computer Security Applications Conference, Las Vegas, December.Google Scholar
Denny, Matthew J., and Arthur, Spirling. 2018. “Text Preprocessing for Unsupervised Learning: Why It Matters, When It Misleads, and What to Do about It.” Political Analysis 26 (2): 168–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Epstein, Lee and Jack, Knight. 1998. The Choices Justices Make. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly.Google Scholar
Epstein, Lee, Martin, Andrew D., Segal, Jeffrey A., and Chad, Westerland. 2007. “The Judicial Common Space.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 23 (2): 303–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gardner, Dee and Mark, Davies. 2007. “Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis.” TESOL Quarterly 41 (2): 339–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gelman, Andrew and Hal, Stern. 2006. “The Difference between ‘Significant’ and ‘Not Significant’ Is Not Itself Statistically Significant.” American Statistician 60 (4): 328–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
George, Tracey E. 1999. “The Dynamics and Determinants of the Decision to Grant En Banc Review.” Washington Law Review 74 (1): 213–74.Google Scholar
Goelzhauser, Greg and Damon, M. Cann. 2014. “Judicial Independence and Opinion Clarity on State Supreme Courts.” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 14 (2): 123–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Grimmer, Justin and Brandon, M. Stewart. 2013. “Text as Data: The Promise and Pitfalls of Automatic Content Analysis Methods for Political Texts.” Political Analysis 21 (3): 267–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gryski, Gerald S., and Gary, Zuk. 2008. A Multi-User Data Base on the Attributes of U.S. Appeals Court Judges, 1801–2000. Scholar
Hansford, Thomas G., and Chelsea, Coe. 2014. “Linguistic Complexity and Public Acceptance of Supreme Court Decisions.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, August.Google Scholar
Hayakawa, S. I. 1994. Choose the Right Word: A Contemporary Guide to Selecting the Precise Word for Every Situation. 2nd ed. Revised by Eugene Ehrlich. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
Heylighen, Francis and Jean-Marc, Dewaele. 1999. “Formality of Language: Definition, Measurement, and Behavioral Determinants.” Internal report, Center “Leo Apostel,” Free University of Brussels.Google Scholar
Joachims, Thorsten. 2002. “Optimizing Search Engines Using Clickthrough Data.” In Proceedings of the 9th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. New York: Association for Computing Machinery.Google Scholar
Johnson, Stephen N. 2014. “The Changing Discourse of the Supreme Court.” University of New Hampshire Law Review 12 (1): 2968.Google Scholar
Kaiser, Henry F. 1960. “The Application 0of Electronic Computers to Factor Analysis.” Educational and Psychological Measurement 20 (1): 141–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kastellec, Jonathon P. 2011. “Hierarchical and Collegial Politics on the U.S. Courts of Appeals.” Journal of Politics 73 (2): 345–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kim, Pauline T. 2008. “Deliberation and Strategy on the United States Courts of Appeals: An Empirical Exploration of Panel Effects.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 157 (5): 1319–81.Google Scholar
Kincaid, J. Peter, Fishburne, Robert P., Rogers, Richard L. and Brad, S. Chissom. 1975. “Derivation of New Readability Formulas (Automated Readability Index, Fog Count, and Flesch Reading Ease Formula) for Navy Enlisted Personnel.” Defense Technical Information Center Document Research Branch Report 8-75.Google Scholar
Klingman, David and William, W. Lammers. 1984. “The ‘General Policy Liberalism’ Factor in American State Politics.” American Journal of Political Science 28 (3): 598610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Koppel, Moshe, Argamon, Shlomo, and Anat, Rachel Shimoni. 2002. “Automatically Categorizing Written Texts by Author Gender.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 17 (4): 401–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krehbiel, Keith. 2010. Pivotal Politics: A Theory of U.S. Lawmaking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Kuersten, Ashlyn and Susan, Haire. 2007. Update to the Appeals Courts Database, 1997–2002. Scholar
Li, William, Azar, Pablo, Larochelle, David, Hill, Phil, Cox, James, Berwick, Robert C. and Andrew, W. Lo. 2013. “Using Algorithmic Attribution Techniques to Determine Authorship in Unsigned Judicial Opinions.” Stanford Technology Law Review 16 (3): 503–34.Google Scholar
Lindquist, Stefanie A., and David, A. Yalof. 2001. “Congressional Responses to Federal Circuit Court Decisions.” Judicature 85 (1): 6168.Google Scholar
Loken, Eric and Andrew, Gelman. 2017. “Measurement Error and the Replication Crisis.” Science 355 (6325): 584–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Maltzman, Forrest, Spriggs II, James F., and Paul, J. Wahlbeck. 2000. Crafting Law on the Supreme Court: The Collegial Game. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Nelson, Michael J. 2014. “Elections and Explanations: Judicial Retention and the Readability of Judicial Opinions.” Working paper. Scholar
Owens, Ryan and Justin, Wedeking. 2011. “Justices and Legal Clarity: Analyzing the Complexity of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions.” Law and Society Review 45 (4): 1027–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Owens, Ryan and Justin, Wedeking. and Patrick, Wohlfarth. 2013. “How the Supreme Court Alters Opinion Language to Evade Congressional Review.” Journal of Law and Courts 1 (1): 3559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pennebaker, James W., Ryan L. Boyd, Kayla Jordan, and Kate, Blackburn. 2015 “The Development and Psychometric Properties of LIWC2015.” Texas ScholarWorks. Scholar
Poole, Keith T., and Howard, Rosenthal. 1997. Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll-Call Voting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Pritchett, C. Herman. 1941. “Divisions of Opinion among Justices of the U. S. Supreme Court.” American Political Science Review 35 (5): 890–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pritchett, C. Herman. 1948. The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values, 1937–1947. New York: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Team., R Core 2016. R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing. Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing.Google Scholar
Rinker, Tyler W. 2013. Quantitative Discourse Analysis Package. Buffalo, NY: University at Buffalo/SUNY. Version 2.2.0.Google Scholar
Rohde, David W., and Harold, J. Spaeth. 1976. Supreme Court Decision Making. San Francisco: Freeman.Google Scholar
Scalia, Antonin and Bryan, A. Garner. 2008. Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West.Google Scholar
Segal, Jeffrey A., and Harold, J. Spaeth. 2002. The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sheika, Fadi Abu and Diana, Inkpen. 2012. “Learning to Classify Documents according to Formal and Informal Style.” Linguistic Issues in Language Technology 8 (1): 129.Google Scholar
Songer, Donald R. 2008. The Original U.S. Appeals Courts Database, 1925–1996. Scholar
Spears, Richard A. 2008. McGraw-Hill’s Essential American Idioms Dictionary. 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
Tausczik, Yla R., and James, W. Pennebaker. 2010. “The Psychological Meaning of Words: LIWC and Computerized Text Analysis Methods.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 29 (1): 2454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ward, Artemus and David, L. Weiden. 2006. Sorcerers’ Apprentices: 100 Years of Law Clerks at the United States Supreme Court. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
Wasserstein, Ronald L., and Nicole, A. Lazar. 2016. “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose.” American Statistician 70 (2): 129–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wedeking, Justin and Michael, Zilis. 2015. “The Strategic Use of Rhetoric: Disagreeable Language in Supreme Court Opinions.” Scholar
Zheng, Rong, Li, Jiexun, Chen, Hsinchun, and Zan, Huang. 2006. “A Framework for Authorship Identification of Online Messages: Writing-Style Features and Classification Techniques.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 57 (3): 378–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar