Though it pushes plenty of hot buttons in the issues it takes up for debate—domestic spying, torture, criminal sentencing for juveniles, and immigration reform, to name just a few—for close to a decade the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Justice Talking program has functioned as the opposite of “shout” radio.

The reporter winces. Not since his professional-school days, more than 35 years ago, has he heard such talk: bolts of rhetoric rolled out to great length with the help of connectives like “in terms of,” “in so far as,” “with respect to,” and “to the extent that.” This is lawspeak, and the perp is Richard Epstein, a University of Chicago law professor. Epstein is holding forth before a live audience at the National Constitution Center in downtown Philadelphia during a taping of Justice Talking, a show produced by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and heard on National Public Radio. And not just any old installment of Justice Talking—this is arguably the most important one of the year: the wrap-up of the U.S. Supreme Court’s just-concluded term, its first with new Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the bench.

Epstein’s speech pattern is a challenge because, according to host Margot Adler, Justice Talking prides itself on explaining legal complexities without recourse to legalese. “Lawyers really do talk in a different language,” she says, and one of the show’s missions is to play interpreter to the lay folk who make up the bulk of NPR’s audience. Today’s venue accentuates that populist slant: the Constitution Center’s lead exhibition for the summer is Sports, with Babe Ruth as poster slugger. (Does this mean that the infield fly rule has a constitutional basis? No, the nexus seems to be that certain sports heroes—though the Babe, surely, was not one of them—overcame discrimination by race and sex.)

The other two guests this afternoon—Joan Biskupic, who covers the Supreme Court for USA Today, and Kathleen Sullivan, a law professor at Stanford—have been sticking to ordinary English. Epstein, though certainly bright and thoughtful, is the lone code-talker (at one point he goes so far as to use an acronym, which Adler makes him unpack). Aside from wielding the hook, which might violate the First Amendment, the best hope for a cure lies in the editing process, which will commence after taping is done. An hour-and-a-half of discussion among Adler and the three panelists, followed by questions from the audience, will be distilled to a running time of 53 minutes, plus the news and announcements that round out an NPR hour. Can the Justice Talking cutters and splicers save the day?

It turns out they can. Two weeks later, when the final version goes online, Epstein sounds measured, almost listener-friendly. Oh, once or twice he wriggles free, as when he mentions that Justice Anthony Kennedy wanted a certain case to be “remanded” without defining the term (it means sending the case back to a lower court for more work before the higher court commits itself). But most of Epstein’s baggage-train sentences have been excised, and Justice Talking has honored its pledge to be plainspoken.

Law Made Plain By Dennis Drabelle
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06