The ACB Standard
Like many people, I was struck by Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s description of her opinion-writing methodology. I wonder if her methodology would improve my writing. Specifically, should the ACB Standard make writing more persuasive?
The ACB Standard #
When I write an opinion resolving a case, I read every word from the perspective of the losing party.
There’s the succinct version of the ACB Standard. Maybe Judge Barrett is not the first to define this standard, but she’s the first I’ve heard state it so well.
Judge Barrett expanded on her standard:
I ask myself how would I view the decision if one of my children was the party I was ruling against: Even though I would not like the result, would I understand that the decision was fairly reasoned and grounded in the law?
Here, she takes an important step. Perhaps Judge Barrett realizes that the litigant in a case is too close to render fair judgment of her defense of the decision. But what about the litigant’s mother? His mother would certainly have an emotional attachment to the outcome, but perhaps an attachment ever so slightly more objective than the litigant.
And then, Judge Barrett wraps up
That is the standard I set for myself in every case, and it is the standard I will follow as long as I am a judge on any court.
What a remarkable standard to hold oneself to.
The Sheer Humanity of the ACB Standard #
Writing instructors often advise students to write with one particular person in mind. I sometimes remember this rule, especially in business writing. Though 30 people might read and comment on my work, I usually know who the one key reader will be. It might be the final decision maker, and often is. But it might also be the silent skeptic who can veto, delay, or otherwise obstruct a decision.
In this case, I write as if I were writing a letter to that person alone, leaving out proper nouns and such. I anticipate (or recognize) their actual objections and fears, answering each in a style that seems appropriate (persuasive) for them.
But I could take this personal approach one step further by imagining that the reader is actually losing something with my recommendation or idea. In other words, I’m not just trying to persuade them that my idea is best, but acknowledging that my idea will cause them to suffer some loss—and they should accept it, anyway.
Now, let’s throw in the mother aspect.
If I have to tell someone’s mother that I’m taking something away from their kid, I better do so in the most humane and sympathetic style possible, right? I can’t just say, “Hey, Misses Biden, I’m going to help destroy Joey’s lifelong dream by denying him the presidency. Now, beat it!”
No. That would be cruel and pointless. Instead, I’d tell Joe’s mom something like this:
I can’t imagine how proud you must be. I have kids of my own, and they’re all great. If one of them became a US Senator, Vice President, and nominee of his party for president, I’d be beside myself with joy. I hope you’re taking time to just let that wash over you. And you’re totally entitled to remind your friends of your son’s accomplishments.
It pains me to tell you, but I am going to vote against him. I would feel no ill-will toward you if you hated me for that. I’d have very negative feelings toward someone who voted against my kids, too. And, since I told you that I’m voting for Trump instead of Joe, I owe you an explanation. I hope that, after reading my explanation for voting for Trump, while you’ll still hate the result, you’ll believe I came to this decision fairly and thoughtfully.
I’m voting for Trump because I want my grandkids to grow up in a country as great as the one you raised Joe in. And I’m not just talking opportunities and jobs and money. I’m talking about the way Joe experienced life. Trump is the first president in my lifetime who seems to understand this. And he keeps his promises like no politician I’ve ever witnessed.
But I’m also voting against your son.
Joe, as you know, likes to tell stories about getting into fistfights when he was a kid. He had a strong sense of right and wrong, which I’m sure he learned from you and his father. He mentions his grandparents a lot, too. You instilled a great sense of justice in Joe, and you encouraged him to fight—literally fight—to defend the right against wrongdoers. Good for you.
And I’m sure you taught Joe that there are reasonable consequences for his actions. Even in defending truth and justice. Getting into a fight usually incurs two kinds of consequences: immediate and enduring. Immediately, you get physically hurt. If you lose, you get emotionally hurt. You might lose a tooth, get a bloody nose, ruin your clothes. Those are all immediate consequences, but that’s not all. You might get detention in school. Or sent home. Your parents will probably ground you for a few days. Even though you defended a girl’s honor or beat up a bully who was picking on the weird kid, you still get punished. But you don’t let that punishment stop you from fighting for good over evil the next time.
I’m not encouraging violence, but, when I look around today, I see a nation where everything’s backward. And your son, for all his virtues, helped get us here. Joe’s party seems to side with the wrongdoer over the kid who’s trying to set things right. Joe would release violent criminals and punish police for arresting them in the first place. Joe would take money from your retirement account and give it to illegal aliens who shouldn’t be in this country to begin with. Joe cheers people who destroy statues of saints and demonizes people who say the Rosary in public. If Joe were the good kid you raised growing up today, he’d likely be expelled from school for beating up that bully. He’d be called a sexist for defended a girl’s honor. He’d be kicked out of his own party for living the teachings of his Catholic faith. He’d be punished and canceled and ostracized for being the man you taught him to be.
Now, if Joe had remained the man you taught him to be, I might consider voting for him. I know it’s hard, so hard, for a parent to look at their kids objectively. But you have to know that Joe does not live his faith. Worse, he defies the Church in the paramount issue facing Catholics in America today, according to the USCCB and Pope Francis: Abortion.
Maybe he goes to Mass every Sunday. Maybe he even goes to confession. But he has stopped fighting for justice for the littlest guy. When his party told him he must choose between his faith and abortion without exception, he chose abortion. He began voting in favor of abortion, reluctantly and apologetically at first. But over the years he’s turned into a supporter and advocate of this abomination, even up to minutes before a baby is born alive. Even “dismemberment abortion.” He has promised to force the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for abortions and contraceptives against their will, against God’s will, against the constant teachings of his Church, and against the Supreme Court.
He has turned his back on the faith that must have had some role in guiding him to those lofty titles: Senator, Vice President, presidential nominee.
I could go onto other issues, but why? If a man who was raised Catholic, educated in the Church, and professes to be Catholic can make laws that allow the slaughter of a live baby, there’s nothing he could do to earn my vote. Nothing.
I’ll understand if you vote for him. He’s your son. And I won’t tell you whether I would vote for one of my kids if they promised to proliferate evil. (But you can probably guess.) I will tell you that I don’t hold you accountable in any way for Joe’s sad retreat from the truth for political expediency. It pains me that Joe, as a leader of his party for decades, might have been the one to stop the Democrats from going so deep into the abyss on this issue. Maybe if Joe and Senator Kennedy and some of the other Catholics in that caucus had just said “no” to the abortion industry, they might have saved their party and millions of innocent lives.
Instead, Joe gave in to demands that he reject the Church and embrace the slaughter.
I will pray that your son accepts before his death God’s grace to repent of the path he’s on and the path he’s leading his party. But I cannot vote for him without making my own deal with the devil, and no party, no election, no country is worth that.
How Did the ACB Standard Work? #
In the comments, please let me know if you think the ACB Standard make writing more humane and more persuasive.