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D.C. Circuit continues its war on acronyms

Last week, the D.C. Circuit revived the claims of victims of terrorist attacks in Iraq against U.S. drug companies and their foreign suppliers, who allegedly secured government contracts by paying off the terrorists.  No. 20-7077, Atchley v. AstraZeneca UK Ltd. (Jan. 4, 2021).  The decision scrutinizes allegations of aiding-and-abetting liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act, holding that they passed muster, including in asserting personal jurisdiction over foreign suppliers.

But the case also offers a small-but-important lesson for D.C. Circuit practitioners about acronyms.

The appellant’s brief is marked “corrected”—a response, it turns out, to the demand of the clerk’s office that they remove from the brief obscure acronyms.

Here’s an excerpt from the Clerk’s letter:

The court’s policy on the use of acronyms is stated in the Circuit’s Handbook of Practice and Procedures, § IX.A.8(d), and the public notice issued January 26, 2010, which is posted on the court’s web site. Parties are expected to limit the use of acronyms and to avoid using acronyms that are not widely known.

Upon review of the brief(s) recently filed in this case, the Clerk’s Office has found that the text contains numerous acronyms and other abbreviations. Therefore, you are advised to reexamine the brief(s) to ensure conformity with the court’s policy. Within 7 days of the docketing of this letter, you may submit a revised brief that eliminates any uncommon acronyms used in the previously filed brief. If a revised brief or briefs are not submitted, the merits panel assigned to this case will be informed that counsel failed to respond to this letter. The word limit governing the previously filed brief also applies to the revised brief.

Quite an ultimatum, no?  Cut the acronyms or we’ll tell the panel.

For convenience, here’s the 2010 public notice the clerk is referring to:

The D.C. Circuit Rules permit the use of abbreviations, including acronyms, in briefs, provided the brief contains a glossary defining the abbreviations, other than those that are part of common usage. D.C. Cir. Rule 28(a)(3). To enhance the clarity of the brief, the court strongly urges parties to limit the use of acronyms. While acronyms may be used for entities and statutes with widely recognized initials, such as FERC and FOIA, parties should avoid using acronyms that are not widely known.

Here’s the Handbook’s statement the clerk was referring to:

Briefs must contain the following …

(d) A glossary defining abbreviations and acronyms, other than those that are part of common usage.  See D.C. Cir. Rule 28(a)(3).

And here’s Circuit Rule 28(a)(3):

All briefs containing abbreviations, including acronyms, must provide a “Glossary” defining each such abbreviation on a page immediately following the table of authorities. Abbreviations that are part of common usage need not be defined

With their corrected brief, the appellants filed a letter explaining as follows:

The revised brief removes the acronyms “EFP” and “J&J” and replaces them with “Penetrator” and “Johnson & Johnson,” respectively. The revised brief also makes minor, non-substantive cuts to offset the additional words created by these changes. No other changes to the brief have been made.  …  The remaining acronyms that the revised brief continues to use – “ATA,” “JASTA,” and “FTO” – are widely known and have been used by this Court and litigants in other cases.

What a hassle. 

Don’t let this happen to you. Avoid using acronyms that are not widely known.