In Brennan Lecture, Judge Roy McLeese III ’85 discusses how to write fair opinions

Judge Roy McLeese III ’85 of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals discussed how to write a fair opinion when he delivered the 27th Brennan Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice on October 25, at an event hosted by the Institute for Judicial Administration.

Judge Roy McLeese III ’85 speaking at a podium
Judge Roy McLeese III ’85

The judge delved into two related questions: what makes an opinion procedurally fair, and what practical techniques can help judges write procedurally fair opinions? To answer these questions, McLeese framed his lecture around 13 reminders for judges, including reflections such as “I might be wrong,” “Judges are public servants,” “Show your work,” “Stay in your lane,” and “Fairness helps improve accuracy.”

Watch the full discussion on video:

Selected remarks by Judge Roy McLeese III ’85:

“Philosophers and law professors have long debated questions of belief and knowledge, and whether there is legal truth and whether there isn’t…. My beliefs on the topic are that there are objectively better and worse answers to legal questions that judges are trying to decide—and, that no matter how certain they feel, the judges in any given case may be wrong about what that better answer is. In other words, when judges write opinions explaining their decisions, they are stating beliefs short of certain knowledge about the legal questions they’re deciding. I think opinions are fairer when they reflect that their authors are stating and explaining beliefs, rather than revealing truths known with absolute certainty. To be clear, I don’t suggest that each sentence in an opinion should end with the words, ‘but we might be wrong,’ but I do suggest mentally adding those words as you write opinions.” (video, 24:47)

“I want to discuss…benefits of ‘showing your work’ in opinions…. Imagine that I’m sitting on an appeal that’s challenging a particular trial court ruling. As I’m reading the briefs, I see that the trial judge was Judge Smith. The thought pops into my head: ‘Judge Smith, experienced and careful judge.’ Well should that affect my ruling?...If my favorable impression of Judge Smith is actually influencing my decision, then I need to say so in my opinion. And if that is not an appropriate consideration–if it’s not something that I would write in an opinion—it’s not something that should be influencing my decision. In other words, an opinion should explicitly state all of the court’s reason for ruling as it does. Courts should not have unstated reasons for their decisions.” (video, 41:17)

Posted on November 16, 2022