. . . I read a judicial opinion. I don’t know how it happened that I’ve read (eh, skimmed the relevant parts of) statutes, perused commentary works on legal doctrines ranging from Wikipedia articles to full length book treatises, examined amicus briefs, dared to have opinions on copyright stuff (and make them public! eek!), and yet never read a single judicial opinion itself. Weird. Embarrassing. Stupefying.
The situation is especially stupefying when I consider how well written these legal decisions are*. Why didn’t I read them before? When I did, the opinions that I read turned out to be clear, concise, tightly argued, and conveying so much new information that I feel almost smarter for having read them already (ha!). I am so incredibly impressed. I’ve always had a general esteem for judges, but now I am just blown away.
I do realize that not all legal decisions are so thrilling. A lawyer told me that lawyers get paid a lot because they read the boring stuff, the stuff everybody else skips over. I’m guessing many court decisions contain chunks that justify the high lawyers’ hourly fees. I read a very select few of the cases — five of the ones highlighted by the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use site, important cases that have had an impact on the contours of the Fair Use doctrine. These are probably unrepresentative of the corpus of judicial opinions as a whole because a) they’re both particularly influential cases and b) they’re on a topic that I find fascinating.
Somebody else told me that a common complaint among law school students is that legal opinions are too long. This contrasts sharply with my effusive description earlier about law opinions being concise. (I tried putting in my own words the argument in these opinions and without fail, found myself using many, many words than did the original writers.) Again, selection probably plays a key role. I got to read stuff that I liked, and I got to read them when I wasn’t a law student, stressed and pressed for time by the demands of law school. Alas, this also means I won’t be making those high hourly rates any time soon.
*: Although, of course, not having read them previously, I guess I couldn’t have known. Really terribly embarrassing.