The Georgia Court of Appeals’ newest judge is breathing new life into court opinion writing by breaking with tradition and using a prose style that is simpler to read and gets straight to the point.
Judge Nels Peterson of Cobb County graduated from Kennesaw State University with a Bachelors in political science and a minor in economics and received his Juris Doctorate from Harvard University. After school, he was a law clerk to Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the eleventh circuit and then practiced law at King & Spalding LLP in Atlanta. From there, Judge Peterson worked as Executive Council and Deputy Executive Council to Governor Sonny Perdue, and following the conclusion of Perdue’s terms, he moved to the Attorney General’s Office as counsel for legal policy until he was appointed by the Attorney General to serve as Georgia’s first Solicitor General in 2012. Most recently, Judge Peterson was the chief lawyer for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia until he was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Governor Nathan Deal in December of 2015 as a part of an expansion of the Court Deal pushed through the legislature.
Despite his remarkable qualifications for the job, in recent months the freshman judge has become most noteworthy for his unique and informal writing style. Instead of following the more traditional writing style for court opinions, which contain lots of legal language commonly referred to as “legaleze” and complex sentence structures in order to explicate the court’s decision, Judge Peterson prefers to use informal and “more normal language” as he put it. In an article in the Daily Report, the opening sentence describes Judge Peterson as “turning phrases that help turn the pages of opinions.” He goes to great lengths to get straight to the point while also making his opinions more engaging.
Peterson says, “Part of being clear is being interesting so that people can pay attention. I do try in my writing not to hide the ball—not to take folks on a 12-page journey of discovery,” and that is exactly what he is doing. As Peterson later points out, a Judge writes for the parties and then the judges and attorneys who are conducting research for their own cases. The goal is not to waste their time by making them hunt or the final conclusion of the court, so he instead likes to put as many facts as he can in the opener while also starting the beginning of the opinion much like a novelist would start the beginning of their first chapter.
For example, take the first sentence of an opinion from April in a case that concerned the rapper Waka Flocka Flame, or Jauquin Malphurs, which is his legal name. Judge Peterson began by saying:
“Juaquin Malphurs’ bag had a gun in it. There are many places in Georgia where a gun in a bag would not excite comment; unfortunately for Malphurs, the TSA screening area of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is not among them.”
Also consider a more recent opinion from July where Peterson began by saying:
“It is often said ‘nothing good happens after midnight.’… As further support for this proposition, it was well after midnight when a masked man burst into the Shamrock bar and shot John Harrison in the arm. The masked man was never found.”
Even though Peterson used the more usual formal style of writing for a court opinion in February, he still tries, and succeeds, in getting the gist of the case and the final decision of the court laid out within the first paragraph.
Peterson’s prose have been noticed. Appellate lawyer Darren J. Summerville said, “It’s a different judicial style of writing,” though Peterson says he was influenced by Judge Pryor when he was clerking as the judge also is known for his simple style. Peterson also pointed out that Judge Richard Poser of the Seventh Circuit has been using Peterson’s style long before him.
Though maybe not the first judge to use a prose style that is short, informal, and to the point, Judge Peterson has been recognized for his style. Perhaps his style will catch on and maybe not only court opinions, but also our laws will be comprehensible to the layman.