Font Wars

You may have seen that the US District Court for the District of Columbia has issued guidance (it isn’t framed as a directive, exactly) on its preferences for typefaces in documents submitted to the court.

Briefs (as they call them in the USA) must be at least 14-point in size (judges tend to be older, and presumably need large-print formats), and in a font with serifs. (Oddly the court’s notice is in a sans serif typeface.)

The court then goes on to say it has ‘determined that certain typefaces, such as Century and Times New Roman, are more legible than others’.

Garamond is singled out as ‘particularly’ difficult to read, because it ‘appears smaller than other typefaces.’

The concern appears to be that lawyers will exploit smaller or narrower fonts as a way of getting around the strict page limits for court documents, thereby putting a strain on judicial eyes and patience.

I’ve always found Garamond rather elegant, and I use it for my own writing. Couldn’t the DC Circuit just ask for it in 16-point type?

Other courts have waded into these treacherous waters.

The United States Supreme Court also likes Century and its progeny, mandating in Rule 33 that briefs ‘shall be typeset in a Century family (e. g., Century Expanded, New Century Schoolbook, or Century Schoolbook) 12-point type …’ (They also seem to like two spaces after a period, which is so 1950.)

Times New Roman gets no mention, so SCOTUS mustn’t like it, or not well enough. Times New Roman is, by omission, effectively proscribed by the highest court in the States.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, for its part, does not like Times New Roman at all.

That court’s Rule 32 requires a roman, serif font that is at least 12-point in size (7th Circuit judges must have better eyesight than those on the DC Circuit, and they’re OK with sans serif for headings).

In its Requirements and Suggestions for Briefs and Other Papers, the 7th Circuit counsels against Times New Roman.

This font was, the court says, designed for quick reading of newspapers (hence the name) with narrow columns of text. It less suitable for ‘book-length (or brief-length) documents’.

The guide goes on to say, ‘Lawyers don’t want their audience to read fast and throw the document away; they want to maximize retention. Achieving that goal requires a different approach—different typefaces, different column widths, different writing conventions. Briefs are like books rather than newspapers.’

So, not much agreement among the American judiciary on this burning question.

What does an actual expert on the typography of legal documents have to say?

Matthew Butterick, in his aptly titled Typography for Lawyers, places Garamond and Century Schoolbook on the ‘A list: Generally tolerable’, his highest category. Plain old Century is on the B list (‘OK in limited doses’), Century Gothic is among the Cs (‘Questionable’), while Times New Roman is relegated to the F list (‘Fatal to your credibility’).

Take that, DC Circuit!

Butterick goes on to say that Times New Roman ‘is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice’, not particularly attractive or readable, but there by default when you open a new document in Word.

He concludes (emphasis in original): ‘If you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop. You have plenty of better alternatives’.

But if you’re appearing before the District Court in Washington, DC, probably not Garamond.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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