News & Politics

Law Twitter Is Having a Fun Time Mocking Neil Gorsuch’s Writing Style

With President Donald Trump looking on, Justice Kennedy swears in Justice Gorsuch. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

Dan Epps started it. The co-host of First Mondays, an exceedingly popular podcast among Supreme Court obsessives, invited his 4,500 Twitter followers to make a game of  imitating Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is known for almost comically over-explaining himself in his opinions.

In January, Epps tweeted: “Let’s rewrite some classic lines from SCOTUS ops… #GorsuchStyle.” Then the Washington University law professor took the first swing, grabbing a line from one of Antonin Scalia’s most famous opinions—“But this wolf comes as a wolf”:

“This wolf comes as a wolf. That is, the wolf, being dangerous, is coming to us in a way that we can tell it is a wolf, i.e., something dangerous, and not something that isn’t dangerous.”

Ian Samuel, Epps’ First Mondays co-host and a Harvard Law lecturer, piled on. He borrowed a line from Justice Goldberg—“…for while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact”—and took the art of exhaustive exposition to its extreme conclusion:

“The Constitution is not a suicide pact. People often agree to commit suicide, you see. That’s called a suicide pact. But the Constitution isn’t an agreement to do that, by which I mean, deliberately cause grave harm (suicide) to the nation.”

At least on appellate twitter, a meme was born.

Garrett Eppswho covers SCOTUS for the Atlantic and is Dan Epps’ father, translated Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife” into Gorsuch-style, adding: “When another person raises a knife in your presence it is pretty much necessary to assume that that person is going to use it against you by sticking it in you, which would hurt a lot.”

CNN contributor Steve Vladeck turned Scalia’s “pure applesauce” into “It’s pure applesauce, by which I mean an unadulterated liquified mixture of certain types of apples in different quantities—a pinch of honeycrisps; a dash of galas—like a good steak rub.” The Economist’s Steven Mazie got involved, plus dozens of law professors, attorneys, and libraries of bored 2Ls. There’s been a #GorsuchStyle Valentine (“Roses are red, Violets are blue, That is, both roses and violets are flowers, each with its own distinct color, namely red and blue, respectively.”) and a spot-on Perd Hapley reference.

Dan Epps, who like Gorsuch clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, describes the younger Justice’s style to me this way. “We’re zeroing in on this one aspect,” says Epps. “A slightly pretentious reference—a point that sounds good. But instead of just letting it hang out there, he then feels the need to explain it to you. It’s clunky writing. The quote should be doing its own work.”

The Gorsuchiest example of Gorsuch’s style that the hashtag has unearthed is his overwrought explanation of a Groucho Marx one-liner:

“Groucho Marx got laughs with his quip, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know,” precisely because the most grammatical readings are not always the only reasonable ones. Context allows us to know that elephants rarely hide in pajamas and that another reading is at least reasonable and even much more likely.”

It’s actually a line of Groucho’s that Gorsuch has borrowed and belabored more than once, the second time leaning in so fully that he basically falls over and defines ‘elephant’:

“So it is that Groucho Marx could joke in Animal Crackers, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know,” leaving his audience at once amused by the image of a pachyderm stealing into his night clothes and yet certain that Marx meant something very different.”

At his nomination to the Court in January of last year, President Trump compared Gorsuch to his hero Scalia, “whose image and genius was in my mind throughout the decision-making process. Not only are we looking at the writings of the nominee—and I studied them closely,” said Trump, “but he is said to be among the finest and most brilliant oftentimes the writings of any judge for a long, long time.” The remarks were almost #GorsuchStyle.

“It’s all in good fun,” Epps assures me more than once over the course of our conversation. “This is not really a substantive criticism of Gorsuch as a justice.” Then he adds: “He’s a fine legal writer. He’s not embarrassing himself out there.”

Contributing Editor

Amanda has contributed to Washingtonian since 2016. She has written about the right-wing media personality Britt McHenry, chronicled her night with Stormy Daniels, and come clean about owning too much stuff. She lives on H Street. She can be reached at [email protected].