Issue Framing – A Rewrite

Bryan Garner says that framing the issues is probably the most important things a lawyer can do in drafting an appellate brief. I agree. If you're issue is clumsy, you can bet that the rest of your argument is clumsy as well.

Here is an issue a defendant raised in a federal criminal appeal.

Did the trial court err when it determined that there was reliable evidence to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that death resulted from the use of heroin supplied by the Appellant?

If you're counting, that's 33 words and 55 syllables.

Here is my rewrite.

The district court clearly erred by finding that Yeager's death resulted from the heroin Brown supplied.

It's just 16 words and 25 syllables. I could have cut it down even further.

The district court clearly erred by finding Yeager's death resulted from Brown's heroin.

What makes this rewrite so much more readable than the original? A few things.

  • The standard of review is spelled out in terms that appellate courts can understand.
  • Surnames give concreteness to the general words of death and heroin.
  • The issue is stated as a declarative sentence, and not a question.
  • Unnecessary words have been excised.

Many lawyers don't think that good writing and issue framing go together. This little rewrite shows they do.

 * Yeager and Brown are not the parties' real names.