All judges legitimize their decisions in writing, but US Supreme Court justices depend on public acceptance to a unique degree. Previous studies of judicial opinions have explored rhetorical strategies that produce legitimacy, but none have examined the laudatory, even operatic, forms of writing Supreme Court justices have used to justify fundamental rights decisions. Doug Coulson demonstrates that such “judicial rhapsodies” are not an aberration but a central feature of judicial discourse.
First examining the classical origins of divisions between law and rhetoric, Coulson tracks what he calls an epideictic register—highly affective forms of expression that utilize hyperbole, amplification, and vocabularies of praise—through a surprising number of landmark Supreme Court opinions. Judicial Rhapsodies recovers and revalues these instances as significant to establishing and maintaining shared perspectives that form the basis for common experience and cooperation.
“Judicial Rhapsodies is both compelling and important. Coulson brings his well-developed knowledge of rhetoric to bear on one of the most central (and most democratically fraught) means of governance in the United States: the Supreme Court opinion. He demonstrates that the epideictic, far from being a dispensable or detestable element of judicial rhetoric, is an essential feature of how the Court operates and seeks to persuade.” —Keith Bybee, Syracuse University
DOUG COULSON is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches in the areas of legal rhetoric, argument, and the history of rhetoric. Before entering academia, he practiced business and commercial litigation for nearly a decade. He is the author of Race, Nation, and Refuge: The Rhetoric of Race in Asian American Citizenship Cases (SUNY), and his articles on legal rhetoric and writing have appeared in many journals, including Rhetorica, the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities.