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The Citeable Opinion: A Quantitative Analysis of the Style and Impact of Judicial Decision

Varsava, Nina, The Citeable Opinion: A Quantitative Analysis of the Style and Impact of Judicial Decisions (July 8, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

“Many commentators surmise a relationship between the style of judicial opinions and their legal impact or precedential power. However, little empirical work has been done to explore this relationship quantitatively. If writing style matters legally we should expect elements of style to vary systematically with a given decision’s uptake in subsequent decisions. Studying the relationship between style and citations can put that hypothesis to the test, and can help illuminate how and to what extent style matters to the law. I employ methods of computational textual analysis and natural language processing to uncover patterns between legal impact and stylistic features such as certainty, informality, and suspense. I derived my stylistic features of interest from the literature on judicial writing and measured their frequency or density in a sample of federal appellate opinions. I then investigated the relationship between these features and the number of cases that cite the decision. My results, generated from a series of regression analyses, suggest that readily measurable elements of style have strong associations with a decision’s precedential power. Qualities such as deference, lengthiness, and hesitancy are all positively associated with citation counts, whereas qualities such as certainty, suspense, and informality are negatively associated with citations. In general, the more citeable opinions are those that are relatively dull and legalistic in terms of style.”

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