Justices Are Long on Words but Short on Guidance





WASHINGTON — In June, the Supreme Court issued a decision on the privacy rights of a police officer whose sexually explicit text messages had been reviewed by his employer. Ever since, lower court judges have struggled to figure out what the decision means.

The case “touches issues of far-reaching significance,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote. Then he explained why the court would decide none of them. A definitive ruling should be avoided, he said, because “it might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted.”

Justice Antonin Scalia went along with the decision, but he blasted his colleagues for “issuing opaque opinions.”

A month later, Judge Frank M. Hull of the federal appeals court in Atlanta complained that the privacy decision featured “a marked lack of clarity,” and was almost aggressively unhelpful to judges and lawyers.

The Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is often criticized for issuing sweeping and politically polarized decisions. But there is an emerging parallel critique as well, this one concerned with the quality of the court’s judicial craftsmanship.

In decisions on questions great and small, the court often provides only limited or ambiguous guidance to lower courts.

And it increasingly does so at enormous length.

Brown v. Board of Education, the towering 1954 decision that held segregated public schools unconstitutional, managed to do its work in fewer than 4,000 words. When the Roberts court returned to just an aspect of the issue in 2007 in Parents Involved v. Seattle, it published some 47,000 words, enough to rival a short novel. In more routine cases, too, the court has been setting records. The median length of majority opinions reached an all-time high in the last term....

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