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Why Are So Many Judges Putting the F-Word in Their Opinions?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 01, 2016 6:58 AM

Who is putting all these #!%&ing curse words into federal appellate opinions? The judges, apparently. According to Law.com, the "F word" has appeared in approximately 445 federal appellate opinions in the last ten years.

Of course, the opinions aren't referring to "that F-ing Rule 12(b)(6) motion." Rather, they're quoting, in full, the curse words of parties who have themselves cursed, sometimes even while censuring those parties for their use of obscenity.

Get These Mother F-ing F-Bombs Out of My Mother F-ing Opinion -- or Not.

(Warning: copious cursing follows.)

"In 2001, a panel of appeals judges in Philadelphia considered if a lawyer who told her opponent, 'Go fuck yourself,' should face sanctions," Law.com's Zoe Tillman writes. "As the opinion took shape, the judges paused: Should they quote the full obscenity?"

They did, and so do plenty of other judges, disposing of niceties like inserting "[expletive]" as a substitute, or adding asterisks after the initial f. And judges are adding curse words to their opinions at unprecedented rates. In the past 10 years, "fuck" has been used in full in federal appellate opinions almost as frequently as the preceding 40 years combined.

Not everyone is bothered by the harsh language, though. Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner doesn't mind the occasional curse. "Look at what judges deal with -- you have murderers, people who steal hundreds of millions of dollars. To the extent that their activities are connected with obscenities, obscene messages, that's part of the case," Posner said.

Barbarians at the Gate

There are, thankfully, some judges out there who still try to keep a bit of decorum and demureness in their opinions. Tillman quotes U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, of the W.D. Tex., who avoids using obscenities in his writing. "This culture has become so coarse in many respects... I would never put that kind of stuff in a written opinion," Biery said. "My father would turn me over his knee if I put that kind of language -- that's the way I was raised."

Judge Biery apparently follows in his father's footsteps. He once jailed someone for saying "a four-letter profanity" in his court.

The First Circuit's Bruce Selya, a lover of words for arcane than profane, also takes a more restrained approach to fouler language. Selya prefers to use "f--" in the place of the full vulgarism, so as to avoid "offending the reader more than I have to."

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