By now, if lawyers haven’t already taken notice, they should: Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit isn’t a big fan of abbreviations, including acronyms. On Monday, the judge twice questioned the space-saving practice of shortening.
This summer, for quick background, Silberman dropped a footnote in a ruling to spotlight his concern about the excessive use of abbreviations and acronyms.
“Here,” the judge wrote in June, “both parties abandoned any attempt to write in plain English, instead abbreviating every conceivable agency and statute involved, familiar or not.” Recognize these? The examples Silberman highlighted: SNF (spent nuclear fuel); HLW (high-level radioactive waste); and NWF (nuclear waste fund).
Silberman’s frustration with truncation (FWT, for short?) hasn’t waned. At a hearing Monday, in an unrelated dispute about nuclear energy, the judge directed his criticism to a senior trial lawyer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (The case was Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League v. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)
Silberman, setting up the scene, asked Robert Rader of the commission how long he’s litigated environmental cases. (Answer: since the late 1970s.) That’s a long time, of course, giving Rader some familiarity with constructions such as “EIS” (environmental impact statement); “SAMDA” (severe accident mitigation design alternative) and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).
The judge told Rader that lawyers should not expect generalist judges to be as well-versed with the acronyms that appear in any attorney’s day-to-day work.
“It’s painful,” Silberman said. Rader twice apologized. Silberman later said: “You obviously didn’t read our rules.”
Yes, there are rules. The D.C. Circuit in January 2010 issued a public notice about the use of acronyms and abbreviations. The court’s rules, the notice said, permit the use of abbreviations, including acronyms, as long as there’s a glossary defining the abbreviation.
“To enhance the clarity of the brief, the court strongly urges parties to limit the use of acronyms,” the note said. “While acronyms may be used for entities and statutes with widely-recognized initials, such as FERC and FOIA, parties should avoid using acronyms that are not widely known.”
After Monday’s nuclear energy case wrapped up, the clerk called the second case on the docket, Bennett v. Donovan. Silberman was presented another chance to continue the dialogue on abbreviations.
Jean Constantine-Davis of the AARP Foundation Litigation stepped up to the podium to argue for the surviving spouses of reverse-mortgage borrowers, and said, right out of the gates, that “home equity conversion mortgage” would be referred to as “HECM.”
“As what?” Silberman asked.
Constantine-Davis spelled out the letters of the abbreviation. Silberman immediately noted the abundance of acronyms and abbreviations in the dispute.
“You didn’t read the rules, either,” the judge said.
Mike Scarcella is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York. This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times. •