In the play and movie, Amadeus, Mozart proudly debuts one of his new compositions for the emperor. The emperor’s verdict took Mozart by surprise. The composition was fine, the emperor intoned, but it suffered from “too many notes.” In providing some “helpful” criticism, the emperor advises, “cut a few and it will be perfect.”
While briefs do not approach the timelessness or artistry of a Mozart opera, courts and judges sometimes offer the same critique: “too many (foot)notes.” The judicial critique can have more validity than the emperor’s issue in Amadeus. The federal court in the District of Columbia, as well as several other courts, warn brief-writers against too many footnotes, instructing that these drop-down asides “shall not be excessive.” Recently, lawyers defending Meta Platforms (formerly, Facebook) in an antitrust action ran afoul of the DC court’s rule this month according to an order from Judge James E. Boasberg. The offending brief contained 19 footnotes, including several lengthy ones, including a footnote that topped 150 words. In striking the brief for violating the rule and attempting “to circumvent page limits” by taking advantage of the single-spacing that footnotes use, the judge ordered counsel to file a new brief immediately “with no more than five footnotes containing no more than 20 aggregate lines of text.”
Scholars commonly use lengthy and extensive footnotes in law review articles, but that practice provides no guidance to counsel filing briefs. Justice Scalia often remarked that he did not read footnotes. In Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, Scalia’s co-author, Bryan Garner, proselytizes for putting citations in footnotes but warns against using footnotes for substantive text. The justice dissented from that view in the book because he wanted to know the authority behind a statement while reading along, rather than having to dart his eyes to the bottom of the page. Still, Scalia’s hostility to footnotes did not extend to his own writing, where he apparently wanted his footnotes read. In Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, 720 n.22 (2015) (Scalia, J., dissenting), he reserved his most unjudicial and quotable criticism of the majority’s decision to a footnote, where he said, if forced to make certain statements in an opinion to obtain a fifth vote, he “would hide my head in a bag” and not allow the Court to descend “from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”
Scalia’s inconsistency suggests that footnotes have their place. In my own briefs, I tend to use footnotes to advise the court of factual or legal points that it should know but placing them in the body would detract from the flow of the narrative I constructed. I also consult any expressed views on footnotes by the judges on the court because, after all, you never want to offend your intended audience.
Perhaps counsel’s new knowledge of Judge Boasberg’s abhorrence of footnotes explains why, in the Meta Platform case, their refiled brief contained no footnotes.