The Slatest

What Did Garamond Do to Deserve a D.C. Court’s Wrath?

Merrick Garland smiling in front of a microphone
Merrick Garland, the attorney general and possible Garamond superfan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, acting like a picky high school English teacher, announced an amendment to its handbook Tuesday: Briefs will only be accepted if they’re written in 14-point serifed fonts, such as Century or Times New Roman. The courts strictly “discourage the use of Garamond.” A stream of Twitter opinions unleashed in the wake of the notice, which itself is (mostly) written in a non-serifed font. It turns out Garamond is a highly contested font, with ardent supporters and fervent haters. But do fonts really have the power to change how someone reads or remembers a document?

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“When you make a font difficult to read, people misinterpret this as meaning that it’s difficult substantively,” says font expert Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California. In one of his studies, Schwarz printed instructions for a recipe and an exercise routine in an easy-to-read font and a difficult-to-read font. People said the harder font took 50 percent longer to read. “And when something takes long, people assume it’s complicated, and they don’t want to do it,” he says.

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So if a lawyer’s brief is written in a difficult font, that might make it seem more complicated than it actually is. But Schwarz says the biggest problem with Garamond is its small size, especially for older judges. He describes Garamond as “elegant” and “pretty” but “thin to print” and notes that it becomes impossible to read on your tablet or computer screen. The court’s notice nods toward this as the reason behind the change, stating that Garamond “appears smaller than the other two typefaces.” And now that most documents are digitized and printing is less common, Schwartz predicts larger fonts will continue to become more popular.

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But why did the courts decide to be anti-Garamond now? Theories have abounded: As Merrick Garland traded his post as head circuit judge for attorney general last week, people wondered if Garland’s exit and Garamond’s ousting were at all relatedWas Garland a secret Garamond tyrant, forcing the font on the courts? “It’s unlikely,” says lawyer Sean Marotta, a partner with Hogan Lovells. “But yeah, Merrick Garland got one vote like everyone else on the court on these issues.” Instead, Marotta thinks that the D.C. Circuit’s message was targeted at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Appellate Staff, who are known to use Garamond in their briefs.

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John Elwood, a partner with the law firm Arnold & Porter, tweeted that Garamond is a popular trick used to “shave serval pages off a brief.” He said on a phone call that federal filing rules for rehearing petitions switched from having a 15-page limit to a word limit in 2016. “But, before that point,” he says, “people would file a Times New Roman opening brief, a Times New Roman reply brief, they would lose, and then they would file a rehearing petition, and suddenly it would be in Garamond.” Elwood decided after reading the D.C. Circuit’s notice to test Garamond out for himself: His 25-page Times New Roman brief became 21 pages.

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Schwarz thinks the D.C. Circuit won’t be the last to impose such font requirements, and it wasn’t the first either. The Supreme Court asks that lawyers write in the “Century family.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit warns against Times New Roman, calling the font useful only for “a quick read,” which is not a lawyer’s goal. “Lawyers don’t want their audience to read fast and throw the document away; they want to maximize retention,” its lengthy requirements opine. Other government branches have weighed in too. Earlier this month, South Dakota’s House of Representatives approved a bill requiring all ballot measures be printed in 14-point font. Back in 2004, Slate wrote about the State Department’s decision to publish only in 14-point Times New Roman.

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So while appellate court judges and college students scrambling to fill 10-page papers may share a disdain for Garamond, wise lawyers should probably migrate toward “typefaces that are easier to read,” as the notice requests. Schwarz says his favorites are Arial and Calibri, though both are sans-serif fonts, and notes that Times New Roman, one of the court’s suggestions, has a familiarity that makes it pleasing to the eye. Perhaps just don’t follow the lead of the clerk’s notice, which has been deemed a “hot mess.” And here’s to hoping the court’s next case takes on another source of impassioned legal argument: two spaces after a period.

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