OMG: Big-name lawyer is mindful of appeals court's disdain for acronyms

Signage is seen at the entrance of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C.
Signage at the entrance of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • D.C. Circuit warned against using too many abbreviations
  • Appellate veteran Donald Verrilli Jr. defended acronym use in antitrust brief for rail clients

(Reuters) - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has long warned lawyers appearing at the Washington, D.C.-based court to avoid cluttering their briefs with acronyms that are not widely known. "FBI" is in. "SNF," or spent nuclear fuel, should not be touched.

The D.C. Circuit clerk's office occasionally sends letters to lawyers telling them a brief doesn't appear to conform to the policy, and overuse of unfamiliar acronyms can also draw a judge's rebuke. Donald Verrilli Jr, an Obama-era U.S. solicitor general who is now a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson, wasn't taking chances in a filing on Feb. 4.

Four minutes after Verrilli submitted a brief for four major U.S. freight rail companies in an antitrust case, he sent the clerk a letter explaining the use of initials for BNSF Railway Co (BNSF), CSX Transportation Inc (CSXT), Norfolk Southern Railway Co (NS) and Union Pacific Railroad Company (UP).

"Those names are widely (indeed, almost exclusively) used in the record material and proceedings below," Verrilli wrote. He said "consistent terminology" was "the best way to enhance the clarity of presentation for this court."

Verrilli did not return messages seeking comment.

The D.C. Circuit docket is loaded with disputes involving federal agencies and administrative law, and that means acronyms often abound.

"The court strongly urges parties to limit the use of acronyms," the D.C. Circuit said in a public notice in 2010.

In an energy ruling in 2012, D.C. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman declared in a footnote that "both parties abandoned any attempt to write in plain English, instead abbreviating every conceivable agency and statute involved."

The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit's practice guide notes that judges who might first dive into the middle of a brief "need to be able to understand your argument without flipping back to the beginning for definitions."

Last November, Thomas Hungar of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, representing the Nasdaq Stock Market Llc, got a "Dear Counsel" letter from D.C. Circuit Clerk Mark Langer about "numerous acronyms and other abbreviations."

Hungar, writing back to Langer, defended financial-industry acronyms and said he will "be mindful of the court's policy on acronyms when they prepare their reply brief."

Langer told Reuters on Monday he senses that law firms and agencies regularly litigating in the court have reduced their use of uncommon acronyms.

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