Search This Blog

Friday, June 13, 2014

Duane on the Pronunciation of "Certiorari"

In the Spring 2014 issue of The Green Bag 2d, James Duane asks a question that many lawyers and law students are too afraid to ask: what is the proper pronunciation of "certiorari?" Parties file writs of certiorari when they want their case heard by the Supreme Court. While hundreds of these writs are filed every year, Duane reveals that there is a "surprising" six-way split on how modern Supreme Court Justices pronounce the word.

Those pronunciations are:

(1) “ser-shee-or-RAHR-ee,” (Stevens, Thomas, Alito) (although Thomas has his own "sertz-ee" variation); 
(2) "ser-shee-or-RARE-eye," (Roberts, Scalia, Breyer); 
(3) "ser-shee-or-RARE-ee," (Rehnquist, O'Connor, Souter); 
(4) “ser-shee-or-ARR-eye,” (Kennedy); 
(5) “ser-shee-ARR-ee,” (Sotomayor); and 
(6) "Cert." (or, phonetically, "sert") (Ginsburg, Kagan) (both of whom have simply chosen to avoid using the term in full).

The lists covers most of the variations that I have heard, although one of my professors at the University of Iowa taught me to pronounce "certiorari" as "ser-shee-AIR-ee." While I was never criticized for using this unique pronunciation, I became more self-conscious about how I used the term once I came to law school and found the word to be a bit more commonplace.

Now, when I find myself in a situation where I must say "certiorari" aloud, I take the third approach that Rehnquist, O'Connor, and Souter adopted. Unfortunately, all the justices who have used this pronunciation have left the court, and Duane points out that the pronunciation disappeared from Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage following Souter's retirement.

During the first year of law school, one of my professors told my classmates and me that uncommon words or pronunciations should be avoided when possible, even if they are correct. Using uncommon, but correct, terms may lead to an unfavorable judgment by the listener, even if that listener turns out to be mistaken. With this lesson in mind, it seems that the ideal approach to take when pronouncing "certiorari," is to take Ginsburg and Kagan's approach and simply avoid saying the full term.


  1. Do Ginsburg and Kagan really say "sert", or do they say "suhrt"? Are all your uses of "ser" here really intended to represent "ser", do they all represent "suhr", or do some represent "ser" and others "suhr"?

  2. My understanding is that all of these pronunciations are "ser" or "sert," rather than "suhr." All of these phonetic pronunciations (with the exception of "sert") are quoted from the article and my reading of the article was that "ser" represents "ser" rather than "suhr."