Judge tells agency lawyers to kill the acronyms ASAP

A senior federal judge has declared war on acronyms.

It turns out that judges -- even those who hear numerous cases involving weighty discussions of bureaucratic rules and procedures -- aren't as familiar with federal agency jargon as some lawyers might think.

Senior Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is particularly annoyed at attorneys going AWOL on their duty to write clear English.

He vented his frustration during an oral argument yesterday.

Robert Rader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the lawyer in the cross hairs. He was just finishing up his argument in a case in which environmental groups are challenging approval of a new reactor design when Silberman struck (Greenwire, Nov. 19).


The judge, a conservative Reagan appointee, began by asking how long Rader has worked in his field. Since 1978, Rader responded.

In that case, the judge added, "you are intimately familiar with all the acronyms used in your brief."

Silberman wondered whether Rader was aware the court has repeatedly asked lawyers not to use acronyms if at all possible.

NEPA -- the acronym for the National Environmental Policy Act -- is acceptable, the judge said, but "virtually none of the others."

Rader's brief included such jewels as SAMDA, the acronym in NRC-speak for "severe accident mitigation design alternative."

Silberman speculated that lawyers scatter their briefs with acronyms partly to reduce the word count, which is limited under court rules.

After expressing annoyance at having to constantly check the glossary of terms included in the briefs, he concluded by advising Rader that acronym-loving lawyers should learn to write better.

The liberal use of acronyms "creates an environmental problem," he quipped.

The audience in the packed courtroom chuckled. One onlooker even applauded, an unusual occurrence in the usually stuffy appeals court. Rader profusely apologized.

Silberman has made similar complaints before. Earlier this year, the issue arose in a case involving the Department of Energy's nuclear waste fund (Greenwire, June 1).

In a footnote to the opinion, Silberman reminded attorneys of the court's Handbook of Practice and Internal Procedures, which states that "parties are strongly urged to limit the use of acronyms" and "should avoid using acronyms that are not widely known."

He also quoted "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell's famous essay on writing, in which he wrote: "Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble."

In the nuclear waste fund case, "both parties abandoned any attempt to write in plain English, instead abbreviating every conceivable agency and statute involved, familiar or not," Silberman said.

He cited SNF ("spent nuclear fund") and NWF ("nuclear waste fund") as examples of the acronyms that annoyed him the most.

Another appeals court judge, William Fletcher of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, raised a similar issue in a February ruling ordering the Forest Service to carry out a new environmental study on the impact of a forest management plan (E&ENews PM, Feb. 3).

He used a series of six footnotes to tear apart some of the agency's prose, although in this instance it was the language used in environmental impact statements rather than court filings that came under criticism.

Quoting a previous court ruling, Fletcher wrote the following: "We remind the Forest Service: 'Environmental impact statements shall be written in plain language ... so that decisionmakers and the public can readily understand them. Agencies should employ writers of clear prose or editors to write, review, or edit statements.'"

Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said it's a positive move for judges to occasionally "police the lawyers" over acronym use.

"Often the lawyers are specialists, and the acronyms are meaningful to them, so they don't even realize how obfuscatory they seem to the rest of the world," he said.

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