Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Law and Literature is a popular course at many law schools for good reason—the impact of literature and storytelling on the law is well-documented. Judges use literature to make points about everything from the parties’ behavior during litigation to the interpretation of statutory language.

Several courts have referenced Alice in Wonderland when addressing arguments they deem nonsensical:  

“‘Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remarks seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.’

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Illustration of Humpty Dumpty
from Through the Looking Glass
by John Tenniel, 1871.
The appeal before us raises the question of whether a defendant may confound the enforcement of the law of this State by engaging in Hatter-like dialogue. Unlike Alice, we are not puzzled and consequently, we reverse the order of the circuit court.” People v. Myers, 474 N.E.2d 923, 924 (Ill. App. Ct. 1985).

And Courts have used Humpty Dumpty’s line “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” when addressing statutory and contract language. See Murakami v. United States, 46 Fed. Cl. 653, 657 n.7 (Fed. Cl. 2000).  

Famous opening lines, such as those from A Tale of Two Cities and Anna Karenina, are also popular among judges:

“As Charles Dickens famously observed at the beginning of his A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ....’ The defendant on this appeal, who pled guilty to bank fraud, had a childhood that the record shows was never the best of times; it was always the worst.” United States v. Brady, 417 F.3d 326, 328 (2nd Cir. 2005).

“Tolstoy wrote, ‘Happy families are all alike; but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ANNA KARENINA 1 (C. Garnett trans.1933). The Held family’s unhappiness manifested itself in litigation, but the courts cannot resolve this stale dispute.” Held v. Held, 137 F.3d 998, 1002 (7th Cir. 1998)

George Orwell’s 1984 makes notable appearances, including in cases regarding government surveillance and privacy interests:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.... It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.... You had to live-did live, from habit that became instinct-in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. George Orwell, 1984 4 (1949). George Orwell’s bleak and chilling vision of post-modern civilization has not come to pass, at least not in this country. But allowing police agents to set up surreptitious, twenty-four-hour video surveillance of landowners on their own property without judicial oversight raises the specter of such a society.” State v. Costin, 720 A.2d 866, 871 (Vt. 1998) (Johnson, J., dissenting).  

As expected, Shakespeare’s works also appear in numerous judicial opinions, with judges quoting both tragedies (e.g. Macbeth and King Henry VI) and comedies (e.g. As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing), sometimes in the same opinion:

“Delays have dangerous ends.” —King Henry VI, Part I

“And so, from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,
And then from hour to hour we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.”
As You Like It

Florida Mun. Liability Self Insurers Program v. Mead Reins. Corp., No. 88-6427-CIV, 1993 WL 206274, at *2-3 (S.D. Fla. May 24, 1993).

And judges don’t just rely on classical literature—even the works of modern authors have made their way into judicial opinions:

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” Center for Food Safety v. Vilsac, 636 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2011) (“Life finds a way.”).

Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger: “This court don't dance.” County of Madison, Ill v. Fed. Emer. Mgmt. Agency, No. 10-cv-919, 2011 WL 3290177, at *7 (S.D. Ill. Aug. 1, 2011).

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