People often ask – well, sometimes ask – why I am still on Twitter, and the answer is it’s for the dog videos. But every now and then you come across something smart that is worth thinking about, and for me that happened today, when I read an appellate lawyer’s tweet that:

FWIW, I have more and more come to the view that appellate judges should write to resolve the dispute between the parties in the crispest, most understandable, and least interesting way, and then stop.

There are times when this is right, and credit to Raffi Melkonian of Wright, Close & Barger for the observation. However, there are times when this is wrong, and I am not referring to politically charged issues but instead to decisions related to certain realms of legal practice where broadly applicable guidance would be important. Note that I don’t mean to suggest that Raffi is wrong, as I highly doubt that he meant that tweet to be a categorical imperative applicable to all types of cases.

However, his comment jumped out at me because it summed up one particular aspect of my thirty years of insurance coverage practice in Massachusetts, and especially one particular frustration in the earlier years of my career. For many years, under one particular make up of the appellate and state supreme court benches in Massachusetts, decisions related to insurance issues were consistently written exactly as Raffi suggested in his tweet: they were very fact specific and thus extremely hard to treat as categorical declarations of controlling law for other types of factual circumstances. However, that was a great frustration and a limitation on their value, because disputes over particular aspects of insurance policies or practices repeat themselves time and again, only under slightly different factual scenarios. The preference of the appellate bench at that time for issuing very fact specific, closely cabined decisions made it very difficult to say conclusively that the insurance coverage rule or the interpretation of a particular policy term enunciated in a particular decision applied equally to later disputes. It gave the decisions limited significance on a day to day basis, and left open for debate in future cases issues that probably could have been foreclosed by more broadly written appellate decisions. As a young lawyer practicing insurance law at the time, it was particularly frustrating because clients would want – and you would want to provide – clear prescriptive advice on how to proceed based on prior rulings, but the narrowness of the appellate decisions – even if issued on very similar policy language – often foreclosed that and instead forced you into the role of Harry Truman’s least favorite type of advisor, one who said on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.

Over the years, that has ceased to be the case in Massachusetts with regard to appellate decisions in this area of the law, and instead such decisions tend to strike a very good balance between only making those proclamations needed to decide the case at bar and making further pronouncements to the extent needed for insurers, policyholders and their lawyers to decide how to conduct themselves in the future. That change has, in my view, soundly improved the practice of law in this realm and the business relationship among insurers and their customers.