I came across the phrase in this article:

And "in this case, the law's terms ensure that, when the federal government seeks a procedural advantage against an individual, it will at least supply him with a single and reasonably comprehensive statement of the nature of the proceedings against him. If men must turn square corners when they deal with the government," Gorsuch declared, "it cannot be too much to expect the government to turn square corners when it deals with them."

It seems to deal with matters of compunction in public service, e.g. following rules and procedures to the best of one's ability. Another source seems to confirm this, citing a little-known "square corners doctrine." But what does it actually mean, and where does it come from?

My hypothesis is that it's a cousin to "make sure your 't's are crossed and your 'i's are dotted," but catchier and more efficient.

EDIT It seems it could be the opposite of "cutting corners," though closer study of THAT phrase's origin (whether the cater-corner or the hunting explanation) seems to indicate that this is an incomplete answer.

  • The “square corners” doctrine stands for fairness and full compliance with required procedures and due process. publiccontractinginstitute.com/square-corners
    – user 66974
    May 4, 2021 at 19:34
  • 1
    Possibly this belongs on Politics.SE? May 4, 2021 at 19:38
  • 2
    Normally, we cut corners when we take shortcuts, which may shortchange the other party. Don't try that with the Feds. By contrast, better to turn square corners, and they must return the favor. Just pulled that outta my stored assets. May 4, 2021 at 19:39
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    @YosefBaskin I like your answer best so far. I feel like Gorsuch is using it as a turn of phrase rather than legal-ese. The name of the doctrine feels like something borrowed from the language, rather than the other way around-- that's why it's here and not on Politics.SE.
    – Drew R
    May 4, 2021 at 19:57
  • I would assume that the expression arose among soldiers required to walk a straight line and then turn in a right angle, e.g. from a due-north path to a due-east past, when on parade. It seems to me that you see marching bands do this at halftime shows during football games.
    – Chaim
    May 4, 2021 at 21:54

2 Answers 2


The blog of Bruce D. Greenberg explains the legal concept:

The “Square Corners” Doctrine

Estate of Taylor v. Director, Div. of Taxation, 422 N.J. Super. 336 (App. Div. 2011). In FMC Stores v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418 (1985), the Supreme Court announced the “square corners” doctrine.

That doctrine says, in essence, that in dealing with the public, government agencies must “turn square corners,” “comport itself with compunction and integrity,” and not “conduct itself so as to achieve or preserve any kind of bargaining or litigational advantage” over a member of the public. As the Court observed, this means that “government may have to forego the freedom of action that private citizens may employ in dealing with one another.”

  • This explanation is fine, but it uses the idiom in the definition. It does not illuminate the phrase's origin or meaning.
    – Drew R
    May 4, 2021 at 20:01
  • In origin, it could be military. West Point cadets may be required to “eat a square meal.”
    – Xanne
    May 5, 2021 at 1:47
  • @DrewR The definition is there! "to turn square corners" = “To comport itself (oneself) with compunction and integrity, and not conduct itself (oneself) so as to achieve or preserve any kind of bargaining or litigational advantage”. the "square corners" thus implies acting in a straight (straightforward) manner, i.e. not convoluted, devious, or deceptive .
    – Greybeard
    May 6, 2021 at 15:40

It is a direct reference to a Supreme Court precedent written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that acknowledged that people must engage with the government on the government's terms. Holmes is famous for writing that is easy to understand by laypeople -- the idiom "to shout fire in a crowded theater" is also originated by him. Gorsuch is binding the federal bureaucracy to the same standard of formalism to which all other Americans have previously been bound.

Men must turn square corners when they deal with the Government. If it attaches even purely formal conditions to its consent to be sued those conditions must be complied with.

From Rock Island C.R.R. v. United States, 254 U.S. 141, 143 (22 November 1920)

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