Comparing Opinions in Montgomery v. Louisiana


In the second in a series of posts where I analyze recent opinions, I compare the majority and dissenting opinions in Montgomery v. Louisiana (No. 14-280).  The Court dealt with two questions in the case:

Does the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory sentencing schemes that require children convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, apply retroactively?

Does the U.S. Supreme Court have the jurisdiction to review the Louisiana Supreme Court’s determination that the Miller rule does not apply retroactively?

In a majority opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the rule established in Miller does apply retroactively. In dissent, Justice Scalia argued that the Court should not have ruled in the case due to lack of jurisdiction and that the decision on whether or not to apply the Miller ruling retroactively should be made by state courts.

Based on these different perspectives on the law, the opinions have different foci.  These divergent perspectives are highlighted by the language used in the opinions.  The graphs below show the most frequent terms that appear in the majority and dissenting opinions.



The term frequencies follow logically from the conclusions these opinions reached.  The majority opinion is much more concerned with the substantive, constitutional rule of law that applies retroactively to life sentences of juveniles.  The dissent looks to the proper job of the reviewing court, distinguishing between the role and power of federal and state courts.

As I did with the opinion in Americold v. ConAgra, I next looked at the writing quality of the opinions in this case.  Both opinions in this case are of similar lengths (without citations the majority opinion runs 4,281 words and the dissenting opinion runs 4,814 words).  To compare the quality of the two opinions I created an additive index based on the StyleWriter grades of the opinions.  The breakdown of the writing quality of the two opinions is provided in the table below

Majority Dissent
Total Words 4281 4814
Average Sentence 18.8 17.3
Rating Excellent Excellent
Passive Index 22 15
Rating Good Excellent
Style Index 59 59
Rating Fair Fair
Readability 70 57
Rating Fair Fair
Reading Grade 13.5 11.5
Rating Fairly Difficult Standard
Jargon 1.6 1.4
Rating Good Good
Wordiness 43 44
Rating Fair Fair
Lively Language 12 11
Rating Fair Fair

With an index where each of these characteristics (aside from total words) is given a possible score of 10 (creating a ceiling of 80 points), Scalia’s dissent ranks higher with a score of 60 than Kennedy’s majority opinion with a score of 56.  Based on anecdotal evidence, this may not be surprising given the high praise often heaped on Scalia’s writing ability.

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