Legal writing has a reputation, and not for easy reading. A century ago, writer Franz Kafka imagined “the Law” as part nightmare, part cultural unconscious: irrational, enigmatic, and stubbornly invulnerable to critique. Anyone who watches the Sunday news shows or listens to AM talk radio knows that something has changed. Constitutional law in the United States today is hotly debated—a juridical wrestling match complete with opposing, media-branded schools of interpretation. Meanwhile, the budget of the United States Supreme Court alone exceeds $84 million annually. As a nation, we invest a lot of money and expertise to clear up legal ambiguities and to decide how laws—written months, decades, or centuries ago—should be applied to present-day situations.
Can we avoid all that? According to James Grimmelmann, Law, computer programmers and legal thinkers have occasionally shared a common dream: What if laws employed the hard-and-fast logic of C++? Imagine courts that run with the accuracy and efficiency of a supercomputer. One circuit court judge, commenting on the Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock decision, voiced his ideal of jurisprudence like this: “A computer programmer may write faulty code, but the code will perform precisely as written regardless of what the programmer anticipated. Courts, no less than computers, are bound by what was typed, and also what was mistyped.”
“That’s a reasonably common view about legal language and programming that you find among some people in law,” Grimmelmann says. “There’s this idea of a computer that is rigid and literal—and perhaps the law could be more like that.”