LawProse Lesson #424: A Cardinal Virtue of Clear Exposition

LawProse Lesson #424: A Cardinal Virtue of Clear Exposition

Clarity entails several cardinal virtues, including unity of purpose, sensible division, logical arrangement of material, and the consistent illustration of generalities with specific examples. Here we’ll focus on the first of these: unity. The neglect of it—commonly seen in the introduction of irrelevant facts—is a prime source of obscurity.

No formula will enable you to omit everything that doesn’t belong. It simply takes intelligence and the determination not to wander off point. Much depends on the scale of the overall composition and the degree to which details can be marshaled in support of the main point.

An excellent exercise for ensuring unity is to capsulize your main idea in a single sentence—a sort of thematic statement. Consider three such statements in cases involving statutory construction:

  • A statute authorizing removal from office for “incompetence, improper conduct, or other inadequate performance” should apply only to matters relating to the incumbent’s fitness for office.
  • When the legislature repealed the mandatory age limit, and then repealed that repealer, the defunct age limit did not automatically spring back into effect.
  • If the legislature used serious mental impairment in two different sections of the same statute, that phrase should be held to bear the same meaning in both sections—and therefore to have the identical elements of proof.

Any brief-writer who composes such a thematic statement is more likely to include what belongs and to exclude what doesn’t.

The discipline required for unity is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, the rhetoricians of ancient Rome insisted that advocates mustn’t burden the judge with everything they discover in their research. Those who do make their prose boring and themselves less credible.

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