The Message from Justice Scalia: When You’re Using Unfamiliar Abbreviations in Briefs, Define Them Up Front

David Post faulted Justice Scalia’s footnote 1 in Monday’s City of Arlington v. FCC (see also this follow-up), so I thought I’d mention my own thought on the subject, because I think there’s actually a useful lesson to law students there.

The footnote, which accompanied a sentence that began, “In July 2008, CTIA—The Wireless Association,” stated:

This is not a typographical error. CTIA—The Wireless Association was the name of the petitioner. CTIA is presumably an (unpronounceable) acronym, but even the organization’s website does not say what it stands for. That secret, known only to wireless-service-provider insiders, we will not disclose here.

And my sense is that the footnote is just a somewhat indirect way to remind lawyers of a useful rule of brief writing — always decode any abbreviations that you use.

Of course, as David points out, it’s not hard for readers to figure out what most abbreviations stand for, with just a bit of research, and the name of the association isn’t that critical in this case in any event. But I take Justice Scalia’s point to be that lawyers shouldn’t put judges to the trouble of doing that research. If you use an abbreviation that your reader is unlikely to know, or for that matter any specialized term that your reader is unlikely to know, make it easy on the reader: define it up front. And don’t just assume that the definition doesn’t matter; the reader of your brief might not share your view. In this case, for instance, a reader might think that understanding what the organization calls itself (especially when it’s a young organization, whose original full name isn’t shrouded in the mists of antiquity) might give him a better picture of the case, and might be annoyed that no decoding was given.

I’m not sure why Justice Scalia thought it necessary to make such a point in this case; maybe he’d seen similar things in other briefs and hadn’t mentioned them then, but this time he thought he ought to say something. But my sense of his point is simply, “Counsel, make things easy on us — if you use a term we don’t know, define it.”

UPDATE: For a related complaint about overuse of abbreviations, see this Legal Times item quoting Judge Laurence Silberman.

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