Most of the current writing about the Knick case has concentrated on the opinions’ contents — notably, the property owners’ victory embodied in the 5 to 4 majority opinion that finally got rid of the intellectual excrescence that was the now-overruled Williamson County case. Slice it anyway you like, but Williamson County’s bizarre ruling that American property owners, unlike any other species of constitutionally aggrieved Americans, are not allowed access to federal courts to vindicate their federal rights under the federal Constitution and statutes, was, well, bizarre. So it was a great day when the Supreme Court’s Knick opinion finally took care of things by overruling Williamson County.
But court opinions don’t just write themselves. We know well because we spent our professional life crafting the raw material used in the making of judicial opinions — the appellate briefs. Writing legal prose that is understandable, clear and persuasive is usually a skill that takes a dollop of innate talent by the writer and is honed by practice. In this case the Chief’s majority opinion certainly meets these criteria. It is lucid, straightforward and does not leave the reader puzzled as to what the court meant to say. Oh sure, we are certain that some lawyers — those on the short end of the Chief Justice’s majority opinion — will find something to kvetch about. But that will be hard to do in this case because the Chief’s majority opinion leaves no doubt what he meant to say. One commentator aptly characterized the Chief’s writing in this case as “simple elegance.” That it was, and more. It also contained a hint of judicial distaste for the overruled precedent’s denial of justice to people who hadn’t done anything wrong but were nevertheless being abused by the very judicial/constitutional system that was supposed to protect their rights. Good show, Your Honor!
And last but not least, a tip of our hat to those anonymous court clerks who (at least for now) have toiled in obscurity, assisting the Justices in the sometimes tedious task of legal research and initial opinion drafting that is essential in the production of the living law of which court opinion are made. Yes, we know. We occasionally kvetch at the clerks’ lack of a specialized experts’ knowledge of the fine points of matters that few lawyers — even after years of experience — get to know and understand.
So Hail to the Chief and to his “sorcerers’ apprentices” who have helped make the Knick majority opinion the masterpiece that it is.