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BP Admonished for Tweaking Line Spacing in Court Brief

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 18, 2014 10:05 AM

Attorneys for BP, the multinational energy company, were called out this week for sneakily reducing the line spacing in a court filing. What can lawyers learn from this incident?

As if it weren't enough for BP to recklessly operate the Deepwater Horizon, sending millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, causing millions in economic damage to the Gulf Coast, killing some people, and incurring billions in fines, they had to go and pull a junior high trick.

Here's what happened:

Nice Try

BP opposed a motion by plaintiffs to ... well, it doesn't really matter. It was some motion. Anyway, BP opposed it. The court's briefing order limited BP's response to 35 double-spaced pages. A closer look at the brief, however, showed that the spacing was slightly less than double-spaced, allowing BP to squeeze in six more pages. Really, guys? Is this your eighth grade book report?

Judge Carl Barbier was not pleased:

"The Court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules -- particularly in a case as massive and complex as this. Counsel are expected to follow the Court's orders both in letter and in spirit. The Court should not have to resort to imposing character limits, etc., to ensure compliance. Counsel's tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper. It certainly is not appropriate here."

It goes without saying that counsel should know and understand local court rules, but this scenario is particularly egregious: BP's lawyers knew what they were doing. Perhaps they took their recklessness training from ... BP?

It's Important

Limitations on word count or page count aren't just a procedural nanny-state. Overburdened courts don't want to read any more than they have to; in fact, the Judicial Advisory Committee is considering decreasing the word limit in appellate briefs to 12,500 from the current 14,000.

This is a good thing, as briefs are too long and hopelessly repetitive. Chief Justice Roberts recognized as much in 2009, when he told a Fourth Circuit conference: "There's no reason that a party's brief couldn't be even more effective at 35 pages, certainly at 40 pages. It would force the lawyers to do a better job of hitting the main points that they have to argue." Tell a lawyer to fill 40 pages, and he'll fill 40 pages, somehow.

BP isn't alone: A similar scandal erupted in 2012 when the United States challenged South Carolina's voter ID law. South Carolina used a 12-point font instead of a 13-point one in its briefing, which allowed it to exceed the 50-page limit by eight to 10 pages. Why is everyone trying to be so tricksy?

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