The office of the U.S. solicitor general sometimes takes controversial positions, but most practitioners agree that the quality of its legal briefs is high. Some of the office’s style secrets are now available for lawyers to emulate or, in some instances, avoid.
The Solicitor General’s Style Guide has just been published and is available for purchase in printed and e-book formats. Lawyer Theodore “Jack” Metzler, formerly with Covington & Burling, published the manual on his own under his InterAlias imprint.
Read it and you will learn that Reagan-era Solicitor General Charles Fried once wrote a memo to his staff banishing the use of the word “caselaw,” insisting instead on the two-word version, “case law.” He said joining the words together was a “barbarism” that deserved “total extirpation.” Elsewhere, the book says the use of three consecutive parentheses was “ugly” and should be avoided, but was not prohibited.
In the battle over “attorney’s fees” versus “attorneys’ fees,” the manual sides with the former, not the latter. Even though the Supreme Court says “Secretary of Interior,” briefs emanating the SG’s office must say “Secretary of the Interior.”
And the squiggly symbol (§) that signifies a section of the U.S. Code or the Code of Federal Regulations? No need to hunt for it on your keyboard if you go by the SG’s rules. That symbol is forbidden.
Metzler, a longtime Supreme Court aficionado and an early blogger about the court, would not reveal who slipped him a copy of the manual. “You’re not the only one who wants to protect sources,” he said.
But once he got it and read it, Metzler found it so interesting, “I thought it should be out there” for Supreme Court practitioners, both veteran and pro se, to use. SG briefs are often “held up as models” of advocacy, Metzler said, so he felt that publishing the guide was important. He informed the SG’s office of his intentions, and received an acknowledgement that the document was in the public domain and could be published. “I didn’t want to put the SG’s office in a bad light,” Metzler said.
The edition of the style manual Metzler published dates to 2007, but he said he has been informed that as of September it was still in use. In his research, Metzler saw references to the existence of a solicitor general’s style manual as far back as 1941, but he has not located one of those.
Oddly enough, Metzler found numerous typos in the manual he received, which was unbound and in typewritten form. He fretted over whether he should fix the errors for the printed version, and in most cases did so.
The manual does not always explain the reasoning behind some of the unusual style quirks favored by the SG’s office. For example, there is an ironclad rule that the “v.” in case names must not be italicized, as in Roe v. Wade, but the manual does not say why.
An explanation is given, however, for one of the more notable rules imposed on SG briefs: the use of asterisks (* * *) instead of ellipses (…) to show omissions in quotations. Using asterisks, the manual states, “eliminates any problem in determining whether a quoted sentence ends before or after an omission.”
Alumni of the SG’s office have mixed memories of the style manual, and some said it takes time to unlearn its oddities once in private practice.
Pratik Shah, who left the SG’s office in August after five years to become co-leader of the appellate practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, laughed that staffers at the firm are “still correcting me” when he lapses into old habits, such as omitting the section symbol. “All of the assistants [to the solicitor general] receive their copy on the first day” on the job, he said. “That manual is our default.”
Deanne Maynard of Morrison & Foerster, who left the SG’s office in 2009, said, “I generally like the SG’s style manual and I continue to follow some of its rules even in private practice.” But, she added, “I don’t miss not italicizing of the ‘v’ between party names. That was a recipe for typos.”
Former acting solicitor General Walter Dellinger, now with O’Melveny & Myers, said the manual is not the reason for the positive reputation the SG’s briefs enjoy. “The best thing about the style of the Solicitor General’s office is not in the manual. It is the custom that an SG brief should err on the side of understatement. I’m convinced that judges find that style more persuasive than briefs that use lots of strong adjectives to condemn the other side’s ‘egregious’ ‘ridiculous’ ‘utterly nonsensical’ or ‘specious’ arguments.”
Contact Tony Mauro at firstname.lastname@example.org.