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What Makes for 'Brilliant' Writing?

Democratic stalwarts Seth Waxman and Lloyd Cutler, along with 156 prominent lawyers, signed a letter attesting to John Roberts’s reputation as a “brilliant writer.”

Thanks to Roberts’s recent confirmation, many people now know about the letter. But what is it that makes Roberts’s writing so brilliant? Let’s explore that question below.

Smith v. Doe

Consider this pivotal section in a brief that Roberts wrote for Alaska in Smith v. Doe. Roberts wanted the Supreme Court to uphold Alaska’s “Megan’s Law,” which requires sex offenders to register with the State after they have been released from prison.

In this section, Roberts persuades the Court by building his argument around the law, not cases. Each paragraph begins by stating what the law is rather than how it developed. And each of Roberts’s points flows logically to the next.

Take a look at the first sentence or two from the following four paragraphs:

The Ninth Circuit also found that the Department of Public Safety’s practice of posting its sex offender registry on the Internet imposed a “substantial” and “burdensome” “affirmative disability or restraint” on registrants, because it exposed them to widespread “community obloquy and scorn that damage them personally and professionally.” But the posting of the registry on the Internet imposes no affirmative disability or restraint at all on a registrant, and certainly nothing akin to the “‘infamous punishment’ of imprisonment.”

* * *

Information about criminal records is routinely made available to the public; indeed, criminal trials must be open to the public. Yet even though that information has always had the potential for negative collateral consequences as a result of the actions of those who learn it, making the information available to the public has never been considered additional “punishment” for the crime itself.

* * *

Nor, moreover, is passive notification on the Internet as invasive as other active steps States may take to notify communities of the presence of sex offenders.

* * *

Alaska’s scheme of Internet notification—shared by some thirty other States—thus does not impose an “affirmative disability or restraint” on Alaska registrants even remotely akin to imprisonment or confinement; it is today simply the most expedient method of conveying information to members of the public who are interested in that information.

One thing that strikes me about Roberts’s briefs is that his argument, and not case law, always controls his structure. In structuring these four paragraphs, Roberts sticks to a simple point that he proves step by step: posting a sex offender’s status on the Internet is no more disabling or punitive than publicizing a sex offender’s crimes during a criminal trial.

So is Roberts’s tightly disciplined structure “brilliant” in itself? Perhaps not. Is it rare? Absolutely.

Roberts and Alaska won this case, by the way; the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in their favor.