Small in format, large in importance
January 9, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Why are Supreme Court documents in the 6-1/8-by-9-1/4 inch booklet format?

Today I was perusing SCOTUSblog and decided to flip through the government's brief on Florida v. Department of Health and Human Services and one thing immediate struck me. No, not about the substance of the brief (Politics-free Filter!), but the layout: single spaced dense fonts surrounded by an ocean of white space.

Now, I realize this is due to casting a brief filed in SCOTUS's 6-1/8-by-9-1/4 inch booklet format into a PDF at letter-size, but that made me wonder: why do they use this format? Is it just tradition (and since this is SCOTUS, I imagine this is so) or is there some actual, pragmatic reason for such an odd paper size? This seems close to the old-style octavo format, so is this a holdover from British law tradition?

(NB: I'm one of those science-trained, super-logical American nerds that thinks we should all go to the eminently well-thought-out ISO 216 system with our paper, so I'm always interested in the oddities of American paper sizing.)
posted by Fortran to Law & Government (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know...but the rules are very specific.

I don't have any answer besides a speculative one from working in law libraries. But I think you're on the right track with tradition. It also may be thought to raise a barrier -- requiring every submission to be formatted in this way, the Court may think it cuts down on documents coming in from attorneys.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:55 AM on January 9, 2012

It's tradition, I think: octavo (and often more specifically, royal octavo) was the standard format for statutes, session books, etc. throughout the 18th and 19th century, and the joint resolutions and bills establishing what is now the Government Printing Office [pdf] stipulated octavo / royal octavo as the preferred formats.
posted by holgate at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2012

It's because the Supreme Court is still essentially an old-school hard-copy place, and the booklet is a traditional form, easy to pick up. (briefs are also color-coded by party, to make it easier to pick the right one up out of a pile.) The Supreme Court is actually a very low-volume court in terms of the number of briefs filed, so there is little pressure to change old customs. I believe the Court still doesn't have it's whole docket of briefs and petitions filed online!
posted by yarly at 11:42 AM on January 9, 2012

Holgate seems to have it. Here, in Moore's Federal Practice (1997), it has a historical appendix which specifies it was for binding as octavo:
Supreme Court Rule 39 of the 1970 Rules, a predecessor of Supreme Court Rule 33 of the 1990 Rules, read:
Rule 39. Form of Appendices, Petitions, Briefs, etc.
(1) All appendices, petitions, motions and briefs, printed for the use of the court must be in such form and size that they can be conveniently bound together, so as to make an ordinary octavo volume, having pages 6 1/8 by 9 1/4 inches and type matter 4 1/6 by 7 1/6 inches....
Also: margins! Where will you take notes if you don't have hefty margins?
posted by steef at 12:14 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The unofficial answer is that it's left over from a time where 8 1/2 x 11 wasn't the standard size. Everywhere else is subject to some outside pressure and so has standardized. For them, the answer is "We're the Supreme Court. We don't care; we don't have to."

No one is going to pick a fight with them over paper size. As a result, there are a few specialty print shops that specialize in this work. A standard print run for this sort of brief is therefore 5x-10x the cost that it would be for similarly bound 8 1/2 x 11 printing.
posted by mercredi at 1:18 PM on January 9, 2012

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