How Appealing took me to an interesting story today involving a man and his Supreme Court petition. Aaron Greenspan is pro se plaintiff who, having lost in the district and circuit courts, decided to take his fight all the way to the Supremes. But in trying to file a petition for certiorari, Greenspan learned a terrible lesson in font choices, page sizes, paper weights, and binding types. The Supreme Court, you seen, has some rather arcane rules about how briefs must look and even feel. (They must be in booklet form, with a certain type of binding, with certain type of paper, and with certain fonts and margins. And unglossed paper only!) These rules can be overwhelming for a practicing attorney, let alone a pro se plaintiff like Greenspan.
No doubt frustrated by his experience in trying to prepare a Supreme Court brief without the aid of an expensive printer, Greenspan added an interesting little question to his petition:
WHETHER, this Court’s Rules regarding document submission … and the various conflicting rules of lower courts serve the interests of justice in an age of instantaneous and costless information transmission over the internet.
I don’t expect to see this petition on the Petitions to Watch list on SCOTUSBlog anytime soon. But it does present an interesting question: why does the Supreme Court require briefs to come in very particular ways? Is all this muss and fuss really necessary?
Some of these rules may very well be holdovers of an earlier time. They might be respected out of tradition. The Supreme Court’s love of Century Schoolbook, a font that looks like a very old font indeed, might be one example of that.
But many rules probably stem at least in part from necessity. Certain colored covers are needed to ensure that the right brief can be quickly extracted from a pile of briefs in a given case. Heavy paper is required so that briefs don’t fall to pieces when they are shuffled through the hands of the clerk’s office staff, the law clerks, and the justices. Small format “booklets” may be easier to transport from chamber to chamber; they’re also easier on the eyes when reading single-column text. Having never clerked for a Justice, I can’t be sure of the practical reasons for all these rules, but I have a suspicion that they’re there.
All that said, I do agree with Greenspan’s belief that these rules have an additional unspoken purpose. The Supreme Court, after all, accepts submissions from folks submitting in forma pauperis (that is, poorer petitioners) in a much simpler format. (It looks like this.) If they’re willing to read slightly less formal submissions from poorer people, why can’t they do the same for everyone?
As Greenspan suspects, the rules likely serve, at least in part, as a hoop-jumping exercise to discourage frivolous submissions to the Court. By making the submission process just a wee bit more difficult, they force the submitter to ask: is it worth it? Even Greenspan shows how the rules can be an effective deterrent in what some might say is a case not worth pursuing; he admits he didn’t want to pay for a professional printer because he was “fighting mostly, but not entirely, out of principle.” (The Supreme Court probably hopes not to waste much time on such battles for moral victory.) It made him consider whether this was a battle worth fighting. So, the printing rules act as a gatekeeper.
Greenspan sees this as an obvious problem. I’m not so sure, as gatekeeping is sometimes important in overworked courts. But for now, I think the most interesting thing is that these rules present these kind of important questions at all. I never would’ve guessed that so much controversy could be generated by margin requirements, font choices, and paper sizes. So kudos to Greenspan for making me think about paper and printing for a while.