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Obituaries

David Mellinkoff; Attorney Advocated Plain English

January 04, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Mellinkoff, attorney, UCLA professor and award-winning writer on the often arcane and confusing language of the law that governs Americans and decides their disputes, has died. He was 85.

Mellinkoff, the author of five perennially reprinted books, died Friday night in Los Angeles, UCLA officials said Monday. He had been in poor health since suffering a severe heart attack Oct. 14.

Known for his wit as well as his scholarship, Mellinkoff sparked a "plain English" movement in both courts and legislatures with his 1963 book "The Language of the Law."

With Mellinkoff fanning the flames, California named a Constitution Revision Commission to simplify the state's governing guide and established an Office of Administrative Law to review state regulations for clarity. The State Bar of California adopted a resolution urging members to hone their verbiage.

Mellinkoff, who described law as "a profession of words," personally waged war on what he called "contagious verbosity."

"The most effective way of shortening law language is for judges and lawyers to stop writing," he once wrote, with tongue not entirely in cheek, "a cruel and unusual expedient yet not without its advocates."

The 1963 book earned Mellinkoff the Scribes Award for the book best conveying the true spirit of the legal profession, unabashed praise from Robert Kirsch, then The Times' book critic, and a new career direction into writing and teaching.

In reviewing "The Language of the Law," Kirsch wrote for The Times in 1963: "It is to Mellinkoff's credit that he practices what he preaches. This volume, which easily could have been pedantic and pedestrian, turns out to be a superb piece of writing, lucid, witty, meticulous in scholarship and unfailingly interesting.

"The author is not simply popping away at the obvious targets--redundancy, absurdity, long-windedness, ambiguity, confusion," Kirsch continued. "Mellinkoff has a fundamental respect for the law, its spirit, its tradition, its moral and ethical utility. And it is precisely this attitude which illuminates the book as it describes the language of the law."

After joining the UCLA law faculty, where he taught for 20 years, Mellinkoff went on to write "The Conscience of a Lawyer," "Lawyers and the System of Justice," "Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense," and the much-in-demand "Mellinkoff's Dictionary of American Legal Usage," which he compiled in 1992.

He became known as the dean of legal writing specialists and was a sought-after speaker at plain-English seminars.

"If you ask most lawyers or judges why they write the way they do," he told The Times in 1989, "they'll tell you it's because ordinary English is imprecise. [They'll say] 'If you write it . . . according to the language of the law, it might not look pretty, but it is precise and will be understood by lawyers and judges years from now' and so forth. Most of that is hogwash."

Last August, a month before he turned 85, Mellinkoff donated his personal library of 1,350 volumes to UCLA's Hugh and Hazel Darling Law Library. The trove included a 17-volume set on British painter Francis Bacon's art, 27 volumes of Thomas Jefferson's papers and a first edition of Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.

Mellinkoff's efforts to reform legal lingo were based on practical experience--a quarter-century in the courtroom trenches. Educated at Stanford and Harvard Law School, he was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1939 and went into private practice in Beverly Hills.

During World War II, he was an Army captain who saw action in New Guinea.

Mellinkoff is survived by his wife of 50 years, Ruth; one son, Daniel; and two grandchildren.

Memorial services are scheduled for 4 p.m. today at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd. The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the UCLA School of Law.

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