How to interpret court rules

Among le­gal doc­u­ments, court fil­ings must con­form to the nar­row­est ty­po­graphic re­stric­tions—court rules. But ex­cept for a few ju­ris­dic­tions, court rules still give law­yers plenty of ty­po­graphic latitude.

So why do 99.99% of the court fil­ings in any ju­ris­dic­tion look alike?

One rea­son is the band­wagon ef­fect. Lawyers usu­ally as­sume that all the other law­yers are fol­low­ing the rules, so if every­one uses 12-point Times New Ro­man or puts two ver­ti­cal lines in the left mar­gin, it must be that the court de­mands it. Pos­si­ble, but un­likely. Read your court rules care­fully—you’ll prob­a­bly be sur­prised at how much is left to your discretion.

An­other rea­son is fear. “The judge will sanc­tion me be­cause my fil­ings aren’t as ugly and hard to read as every­one else’s.” Again—pos­si­ble, but un­likely. If your ty­pog­ra­phy con­forms to the court rules in good faith, you should be on solid ground. No judge or clerk ever com­plained about the ty­pog­ra­phy in my fil­ings. Nor has any reader of this book re­ported any sim­i­lar consequences.

A third rea­son is force of habit. To cre­ate to­day’s fil­ing, law­yers will of­ten just start with last week’s fil­ing, which was based on the fil­ing from the week be­fore that, and so on back to about 1979. For­mat­ting choices get en­trenched even if they don’t re­late to the rules.

A fourth rea­son is lack of ty­po­graphic skill. How do you de­part from the usual dreck while still ad­her­ing to the rules? Armed with the in­for­ma­tion in this book, you should have no prob­lem un­der­stand­ing where court rules are strict and where they’re flexible.

Con­sis­tency of ty­pog­ra­phy in court fil­ings helps en­sure fair­ness to the par­ties. For in­stance, in ju­ris­dic­tions that use page lim­its, if law­yer A sets his briefs at 12 point and law­yer B sets hers at 10 point, then law­yer B will get more words per page. Court rules about ty­pog­ra­phy pre­vent abuse of these limits.

Court rules about ty­pog­ra­phy also ex­ist as a con­ve­nience to the judge and the court staff. Judges don’t want to read sheaves of 9-point text. Rules that set min­i­mum page mar­gins or point size en­sure a min­i­mum stan­dard of legibility.

As you put your ty­po­graphic dis­cre­tion to work, keep these two goals in mind. Don’t ex­pect your judge to be happy if you ex­ploit ty­po­graphic loop­holes in the rules that de­feat these goals.

For in­stance, the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Cen­tral Dis­trict of Cal­i­for­nia calls for a pro­por­tion­ally spaced font that’s 14 point or larger. (C.D. Cal. L.R. 11-3.1.1.) How about this one? It’s pro­por­tion­ally spaced. It’s set larger than 14 point. Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, I’ve com­plied with the rule. But will a fed­eral judge be im­pressed with how I’ve in­ter­preted the rule? No way.

Con­versely, you shouldn’t worry about ty­po­graphic im­prove­ments that re­sult in fewer words per page, like larger page mar­gins. Un­less you need every word or every page al­lo­cated to you—and good le­gal writ­ers never do—why not use the ex­tra white space to im­prove the ty­pog­ra­phy? (See mo­tions for an example.)

Keep in mind that court rules about ty­pog­ra­phy are not de­signed to pro­duce good ty­pog­ra­phy. That’s your job. Court rules set min­i­mums and max­i­mums. They’re usu­ally phrased in terms of “at least” and “no more than”. Very rarely do they com­pletely elim­i­nate discretion.

I’m not sug­gest­ing you should use this dis­cre­tion to be dif­fer­ent for the sake of be­ing dif­fer­ent. Rather, you should use this dis­cre­tion to fill in what the court rules de­lib­er­ately leave incomplete.

I’m aware that some judges have pref­er­ences that are un­writ­ten or that con­flict with rules of the ju­ris­dic­tion. Re­spect these pref­er­ences. Ty­pog­ra­phy is about be­ing ef­fec­tive. If the only font your judge wants to see is Ar­ial Bold Con­densed, or your judge wants 23 lines per dou­ble-spaced page, then that’s the way it is.

  1. If the rules call for a spe­cific font or point size, use it. For in­stance, Florida Rule of Ap­pel­late Pro­ce­dure 9.210(a)(2) re­quires ei­ther 14-point Times New Ro­man or 12-point Courier New. In that case, you have no dis­cre­tion. Fol­low the rule.

  2. If the rules of­fer a choice be­tween a mono­spaced font and any­thing else, choose the latter.

  3. If the rules call for a font that’s sim­i­lar to a par­tic­u­lar font, use your dis­cre­tion care­fully. For in­stance, Calif. Rule of Court 2.105 re­quires a font “es­sen­tially equiv­a­lent to Courier, Times New Ro­man, or Ar­ial”. I take this to mean you should use a font that has the gen­eral leg­i­bil­ity and length char­ac­ter­is­tics of Courier, Times New Ro­man, or Ar­ial. (Mean­ing, pretty much any font in font rec­om­men­da­tions.) I don’t take the rule to mean you can use only those three fonts. If the rule meant that, it would have said so.

  4. If the rules al­low you to use ei­ther a serif or a sans serif font for body text, I rec­om­mend a serif font. Most books, news­pa­pers, and mag­a­zines use serif fonts for body text. It’s the tra­di­tional choice and still the best choice.

  5. If the rules call for a pro­por­tion­ally spaced font, use your dis­cre­tion. Just about every font is pro­por­tion­ally spaced, so this kind of rule doesn’t cre­ate a mean­ing­ful lim­i­ta­tion. A taste­ful serif font, like those shown in font rec­om­men­da­tions, is the best bet.

  6. If the rules set a min­i­mum point size, use the min­i­mum. For in­stance, many courts re­quire that text be set at 12 point or larger. As you know from point size, 12 point is al­ready pretty big. No need to go big­ger. (I’ve only found a hand­ful of courts that per­mit 11 point, and none that per­mit 10 point.)

  1. The rules may al­low page mar­gins that re­sult in over­size line lengths. Feel free to widen the page mar­gins to get a more rea­son­able line length. For in­stance, Calif. Rule of Court 2.107 re­quires mar­gins “at least one inch from the left edge ... [and] at least 1⁄2 inch from the right edge”. At max­i­mum, this cre­ates seven-inch lines, which will be too long for most 12-point fonts. The “at least” qual­i­fier is a sig­nal that you needn’t fill up every square inch.

  2. Like­wise, the rules may al­low you to fit a cer­tain num­ber of lines per page. You may want to use fewer if it makes for a more leg­i­ble and ap­peal­ing lay­out. Re­mem­ber the ninth maxim of page lay­outdon’t fear white space.

  3. Line spac­ing rules should be in­ter­preted arith­meti­cally, not as word-proces­sor lingo. If a rule calls for dou­ble-spaced lines, set your line spac­ing to ex­actly twice the point size of the body text. Don’t rely on the “Dou­ble” line-spac­ing op­tion in your word proces­sor, which may not be equiv­a­lent. For in­stance, in Word, “Dou­ble” line spac­ing is about 15% larger than true dou­ble spac­ing. This re­duces the num­ber of lines per page.

  4. Avoid putting rules and bor­ders within or around the page that aren’t ex­plic­itly re­quired. It clut­ters the page. For ex­am­ple, in Los An­ge­les courts, al­most every lit­i­ga­tor puts two ver­ti­cal lines on the left edge of the page and one ver­ti­cal line on the right. But this prac­tice is not re­quired by any rule. In state court, the line on the left is op­tional—you can use a solid sin­gle or dou­ble line, but you can also use a “ver­ti­cal col­umn of space at least ⅕ inch wide”. (Calif. Rule of Court 2.108(4).) Noth­ing is re­quired on the right side. Mean­while, our fed­eral court re­quires no ver­ti­cal lines on ei­ther side. Fol­low the rules, not the crowd.

  5. If a court rule ex­plic­itly re­quires ver­ti­cal lines, make them no more than half a point thick. This will keep them rel­a­tively unobtrusive.

The tips above ap­ply equally to PDFs. PDFs pre­serve your for­mat­ting ex­actly, in­clud­ing fonts, so you don’t have to worry that read­ers will see some­thing dif­fer­ent from what you in­tended. (Though make sure you know how to make a pdf correctly.)

But if you have to file cer­tain doc­u­ments (e.g., pro­posed or­ders) as Word or Word­Per­fect files, be care­ful. Word-proces­sor file for­mats re­quire the re­cip­i­ent to have the same fonts in­stalled. There­fore, to be safe, set these doc­u­ments in Times New Ro­man or an­other stan­dard sys­tem font to en­sure they dis­play accurately.

“What font should I use if my judge prefers to read on screen?” It was once true that dig­i­tal screens had much lower pixel res­o­lu­tion than laser prints, which would have been a salient con­sid­er­a­tion for font choice. These days, how­ever, high-res­o­lu­tion screens are be­com­ing the norm, and the res­o­lu­tion dif­fer­ences be­tween screen and pa­per are dis­ap­pear­ing. Against that back­drop, my view is that the best font for screen read­ing is the one you pre­fer for print­ing. (For more, see screen-read­ing con­sid­er­a­tions.)

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