Reader-Friendly Legal Documents Are Needed Now More Than Ever

The emergence of a “post-fact world” is a complex problem with multiple causes. And the fight against alternative facts must be fought on multiple fronts with a variety of tools. Part of the solution involves making primary sources more accessible to more people. Accessibility means not only making the documents available to the public, but writing them and formatting them in a way that promotes reading and comprehension. (The idea being that if more people can understand the primary source, they will be less likely to believe the misstatements spouted by biased outlets purporting to summarize the primary source.)

Ideally all three branches of government would commit to using plain language and good document design. But the law is complex and fulfilling such a commitment would be a challenge even for the well intentioned. And, at the present moment, it seems that many in our government are not well intentioned. 

So, how can we proceed? Part of the solution involves having reputable news sources provide us with helpful annotations to the primary sources. As an example, NPR had its journalists annotate parts of Trump’s executive order on immigration

But with the fragmentation of news consumption, we need more than that. We need to be able to read and understand the primary sources ourselves. And while the current administration might make that impossible with respect to the executive branch, I think there is at least the possibility that the judicial branch might rise to the occasion. For example, the Ninth Circuit created a special webpage for the Washington v. Trump appeal “due to the level of interest in this case.” This webpage makes it much easier for the public to access all of the documents filed in the case. 

But accessing the documents is only half the battle. We need to be able to read and understand them too. And, unfortunately, most court filings are not very readable because they are strangely formatted, full of jargon, and riddled with citations that are meaningless to non-lawyers. I have to admit that even I, as a lawyer interested in the case, feel my eyes glazing over when I start to read one of these documents. 

How could the courts make their orders more readable? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • change the court rules regarding document formatting to allow for the adoption of good typographic principles;
  • put citations in footnotes instead of in the text to make the documents easier for non-lawyers to read; and 
  • use less legal jargon, or at least add some simple explanations for the more confusing terms and procedures.

To show the impact of these small changes, I took Judge Robart’s TRO from the Washington v. Trump case and redesigned it. I did not adhere to the court’s rules regarding formatting because I think those rules make the documents too hard to read. Instead, I adopted what I think are fairly widely accepted principles of good typography and page layout. I also put the citations in footnotes and hyperlinked as many docket entries and cases as I could. Lastly, I changed a few words here and there in an attempt to add clarity.

Here are screenshots of the original TRO and my redesign (click each image to view the entire document):

Judge Robart’s TRO as originally formatted

Judge Robart’s TRO as originally formatted

Redesigned version of Judge Robart’s TRO

Redesigned version of Judge Robart’s TRO

If you have thoughts about how to make court documents even more accessible, or suggestions for how to encourage courts to make these changes, I would love to hear from you!