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Friday, March 13, 2020

Hyperlinks as Pseudo-Authority: A Fine New Example

I wrote in my post yesterday, "The way that footnotes and hyperlinks have become a sort of non-scholarly argumentative rhetoric of their own deserves more examination." Appropriately enough for an age in which people simultaneously worry about misleading uses of news or newslike substance, seek more and better authority when they can get it, and yet are aware of the ways in which the appearance of authority can be misleading or misused, the footnote and hyperlink, I think, often serve less as support than as a form of strategic use of the trappings of authority. The colored link, like the robe and wig on a barrister, offers a kind of appearance of a guarantee of seriousness, no matter the reality underneath. No doubt students of rhetoric, and specifically of online rhetoric, have done this work. I would love to see some of it as applied specifically to writing about law or by lawyers (especially legal academics, the more their work bleeds between "platforms"). 

In any event, a wonderful example of the gap between the appearance and reality of that "authority" comes along today. Slate has a piece about a former state court judge who has retired from the Supreme Court bar, and done so in a letter criticizing the Supreme Court and a number of its justices. I should say I have no problem at all with his doing so. It is his right, a noisy resignation is a respectable and longstanding practice, and he is in an entirely different position than Judge Adelman, about whom I wrote yesterday. 

Here's the part that interests me. The lead-in part of the article states--in hyperlinked text--that members of the Supreme Court bar "are deemed members of the legal elite." Presumably, one who didn't click through and didn't know otherwise would believe that 1) members of the Supreme Court bar are, or are (presumably rightly) deemed, members of the legal elite, and 2) that the article linked to provides authority for that statement. But if one clicks through, one finds an article headlined, "For lawyers, the Supreme Court bar is vanity trip." The article adds, "Joining the group may sound exclusive, but it requires less paperwork than visiting a new doctor's office and costs less than an annual gym membership." It notes that "[t]he Supreme Court estimates its bar has 230,000 members, a number that may be inflated because no one checks to ensure members are still alive and practicing." Other descriptions and concepts from the article include "seemed like fun," "I know it's very superficial," "[others interviewed] sheepishly [call the membership] cool," and, in essence, "hey, neat-looking certificate." One lawyer calls it an "honor," but that is far from the gist of the piece. So a more accurate text for that hyperlink would have read, "members of the Supreme Court bar are thought by no sensible person, including themselves, to be members of the legal elite; indeed, no one is even sure how many of them are still alive."

The journalist who wrote this is skilled and experienced, so I assume it was an error. Perhaps the link was added later by some editor or assistant, although I note that elsewhere in the article's text, the author writes directly and without further support that the Supreme Court bar is "the most prestigious association of attorneys in the country," a claim I find either highly ambiguous or entirely dubious. It is a more tantalizing speculation that perhaps the link is itself a kind of elaborate and knowing parody of hyperlinking itself. But it was lovely to find it so soon after what I wrote about hyperlinks yesterday, and further evidence that not every appearance of authority, in the news or elsewhere, is actually authoritative. One more reminder, if any were needed: Always read the cited text! 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 13, 2020 at 06:25 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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