Cleaning Up: A New Parenthetical For NC Appellate Opinions

October 06, 2021   |   Erwin Byrd

NCAJ Amicus Consultant Erwin Byrd will moderate a three-judge panel discussion on how to improve legal writing as part of the Nov. 5 CLE NCAJ Skills Academy: New Developments in Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy. Panelists will be Justice Anita Earls of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, Judge Toby Hampson of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Judge Richard Dietz of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. This article will appear in the upcoming edition of Trial Briefs. Register for the CLE here.

By Erwin Byrd

Big things happened at the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2020, so perhaps we can forgive one big oversight:  the first appearance in an opinion of that Court, on Feb. 28, 2020, of a new citation convention – the “cleaned up” parenthetical phrase – received no public fanfare.1 Unlike the advent of this pioneering parenthetical in the United States Supreme Court nearly a year later, 2 which prompted such headlines as “Justice Thomas Goes Rogue on the Bluebook With ‘Cleaned Up’ Citation — To the Delight of Appellate Lawyers,”3 and “How SCOTUS Finally Got ‘Cleaned Up,’ ”4 Justice Anita Earls’ groundbreaking application of the phrase in her majority opinion in State v. Simpkins did not receive the coverage I believe it deserves. I feel it’s my duty, as your NCAJ amicus consultant, to advertise the arrival of the “cleaned up” parenthetical in our fair state and urge you to use it in your own legal writing. 

Before I tell you why you should adopt the “cleaned up” parenthetical in your next appellate motion or brief, I’ll show you. Here’s a quote often used by North Carolina’s appellate courts to describe plain error review, before and after it’s been cleaned up:   

For error to constitute plain error, a defendant must demonstrate that a fundamental error occurred at trial. See Odom, 307 N.C. at 660, 300 S.E.2d at 378. To show that an error was fundamental, a defendant must establish prejudice — that, after examination of the entire record, the error “had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.” See id.(citations and quotation marks omitted); see also Walker, 316 N.C. at 39, 340 S.E.2d at 83 (stating “that absent the error the jury probably would have reached a different verdict” and concluding that although the evidentiary error affected a fundamental right, viewed in light of the entire record, the error was not plain error). Moreover, because plain error is to be “applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case,” Odom, 307 N.C. at 660, 300 S.E.2d at 378, the error will often be one that “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” Odom, 307 N.C. at 660, 300 S.E.2d at 378 (quoting McCaskill, 676 F.2d at 1002). 

State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506, 518 (2012). 

This summer, Justice Barringer wielded the “cleaned up” parenthetical to achieve the following result: 

For error to constitute plain error, a defendant must demonstrate that a fundamental error occurred at trial. To show that an error was fundamental, a defendant must establish prejudice—that, after examination of the entire record, the error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty. Moreover, because plain error is to be applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case the error will often be one that seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings[.] State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506, 518 (2012) (cleaned up). 

State v. Betts, 2021 NCSC 68 (N.C. 2021). 

Which explanation of plain error review would you rather read? If you prefer the first one, this new parenthetical is probably not for you. But if you found yourself scanning that first paragraph several times before getting through it, you might consider jumping aboard the “cleaned up” parenthetical train. You will be in terrific company:  Justices Hudson, Ervin and Berger have also used the “cleaned up” parenthetical in opinions each has recently authored for the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Judge Lucy Inman brought “cleaned up” to the Court of Appeals this summer, and the parenthetical has since been taken up by Judges Arrowood and Gore in opinions each has written for that Court. You too can free your nugget of valuable precedent from the obscuring layers of quotation marks, ellipses, brackets, and citations within citations that prevent it from shining through and making your excellent point.  

Why Use “Cleaned Up”? 

As the inventor of the “cleaned up” parenthetical, Jack Metzler, pointed out, lawyers and judges use quotations a lot.5 Courts aren’t going to do what we want because we say they should; we have to find other courts (or, even better, the court we’re trying to convince) that have already done it and quote them. That court probably used a quote from another court, or, more likely, itself. And, in so doing, someone following the Bluebook while writing that legal opinion has ensured that each alteration to the original quote and subsequent uses of that quote, be it a lower case letter substituted for an upper case one, an omitted comma or phrase, or a word emphasized, is memorialized with brackets, ellipsis, or parentheticals like “internal quotation marks omitted” or “emphasis added.” That court may also have used parentheticals that are not endorsed by the Bluebook, such as “brackets omitted,” to make its opinion more readable. By the time a useful precedential passage has been quoted a few times, often by the very court that wrote the original opinion now being re-quoted, it becomes difficult to determine which quoting opinion omitted or altered which other quoting opinion, and the substantive message of the passage is buried in citations and punctuation. The parenthetical “cleaned up” was proposed to reduce that “clutter” as follows: 

I propose that all legal writers adopt the parenthetical (cleaned up) to avoid the clutter that quotations gather as they are successively requoted and altered from court opinion to court opinion, as well as the citation baggage that accumulates along the way. Using (cleaned up) indicates that in quoting a court’s decision the author—  

  • has removed extraneous, non-substantive material like brackets, quotation marks, ellipses, footnote reference numbers, and internal citations;  
  • may have changed capitalization without using brackets to indicate that change; and  
  • affirmatively represents that the alterations were made solely to enhance readability and that the quotation otherwise faithfully reproduces the quoted text.6 

Inman put it more succinctly in an explanatory footnote the first time “cleaned up” appeared in a Court of Appeals opinion: “[W]e use the parenthetical ‘(cleaned up)’ to denote removal of extraneous punctuation and citations without alteration of the quoted passage’s meaning.”7 Thank you, Judge Inman. To (mis)quote Hakuna Matata:  “[Cleaned up], what a wonderful phrase”! 

How to Use “Cleaned Up”? 

I cannot say this better than the originator of the “cleaned up” parenthetical, Jack Metzler, so I will borrow from him, again: 

Using (cleaned up) is simple. To quote language from an opinion that includes a quotation from another opinion, simply enclose the words of the quotation itself within a single set of double quotation marks, leaving out brackets, ellipses, internal quotation marks and citations, and footnote reference numbers. Capitalize the first letter of the quotation if it begins your sentence; make it lower case if it does not. Cite the source of the quotation as if the words were original to the court you’re citing, and add (cleaned up) to the citation.8 

Look back at State v. Betts, in the examples at the top of this article from our own state’s Supreme Court. There, rather than citing to State v. Odom and State v. Walker, other NC Supreme Court cases from which talented wordsmith and then-Associate Justice Mark Martin drew to create, in Lawrence, a more succinct explanation of plain error review, Betts simply cites to Lawrence. Eliminating the references to earlier decisions does not take away from the precedential value of the quoted passage:  Lawrence, like Odom and Walker, is an opinion of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. By including the parenthetical “cleaned up,” Betts also indicates to the reader that at least one other case was quoted within the quote. In my view, the parenthetical strikes a good balance between informing the reader of the origin of the legal principle quoted and clearly communicating the substance of the principle. 

You may also notice that, in quoting Lawrence, Barringer stuck to the Bluebook:  to indicate that she had completed a quoted sentence in a different place than the Lawrence court did, she included brackets around the last period, per Bluebook Rule 5.2. If you decide to use “cleaned up,” you, too, must treat the quoted passage with care, and ensure that any changes you make to it are properly denoted.  

If you need more information before using the “cleaned up” parenthetical for the first time, I recommended reading Metzger’s essay, cited in the footnotes of this article, and looking at North Carolina appellate opinions in which the parenthetical’s been utilized. Then gather your courage and clean up those quotes:  you will no longer spend valuable time contemplating the correct numbers of quotation marks to employ; you can cut down on word counts when needed; and your readers will thank you for making your legal writing easier to read. 

1 State v. Simpkins, 373 N.C. 530, 536, 838 S.E.2d 439, 446 (N.C. 2020)
2 Brownback v. King, 141 S. Ct. 740, 748, 209 L.Ed.2d 33 (2021)
3 Debra Cassens Weiss, Justice Thomas goes rogue on the Bluebook with “cleaned up” citation—to the delight of appellate lawyers, ABA Journal, Daily News (March 14, 2021, 12:35PM) 
4 Tony Mauro, How SCOTUS Finally Got “Cleaned Up,”, Supreme Court Brief (March 3, 2021, 7AM) 
5 Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 J. APP. PRAC. & PROCESS 143 (2017) 
6 Metzger, “Cleaning Up,” 153-54. 
7 Town of Apex v. Rubin, 2021 NCCOA 187 n. 7 (N.C. App. 2021) 
8 Metzger, “Cleaning Up,” 155.