Legally Speaking: To boldly go where no lawyer has gone before

By John G. Browning | Sep 25, 2012

It’s only natural for popular culture to affect what we do in the rest of our lives, and those in the legal profession are no different. 

Sports analogies, references to movies, lines from songs—all of these have found their way into courtroom arguments, lawyers’ briefs, and even judicial opinions.  Of course, sometimes our favorite references reveal a side to us that we don’t always show.

For example, I recently met the general counsel of a large company—outwardly a pretty conservative lawyer—and she made a passing reference to a punk rock song from the 1980s.  When I mentioned knowing the band, she started gushing about that whole music genre, clearly a hidden passion of hers.

As for me, I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi geek who grew up watching “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and many other classic (and some not so classic) fixtures of that genre.

I never realized how many other lawyers and judges there were out there who are also “Star Trek” fans, until a perusal of some court decisions out there revealed just how many judges are wannabe Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks.

For example, there are judges who have used the analogy of being as logical and free from emotions as a Vulcan to caution jurors.  In a 2011 California case, Jackson v. Harrington, the court explained being objective to a prospective juror in “Star Trek” terms:

“Were you a fan of Star Trek? . . .  And you had McCoy, the doctor who was so emotional, who just ran off the wall at the drop of a hat whenever something emotional would occur.  And you had Spock always standing there, placidly not affected at all by the emotion of the situation.  And that’s what we want in this case.  We understand that it’s not easy.  It’s not easy.  But to the extent that you possibly could dedicate yourself to doing exactly that, in other words, in being fair, you don’t say, well, I’ll be fair to the People.”

Similarly, in a 2011 New Jersey case, Jones v. South Jersey Industries, Inc., another judge invoked the iconic Vulcan science officer when instructing the jurors not to allow emotional witness outbursts to sway them.

He said, “Do you remember Star Trek, the original one with Mr. Spock?  Mr. Spock could look at things totally logical.  He was not influenced by passion.  He certainly wasn’t influenced by prejudice, and that’s . . . how you need to look at a case.  You need to look at a case for the facts as you see them.  You need to look at the case for the law . . . . You don’t allow sympathy to enter into your decision.”

Another favorite aspect of Star Trek that has influenced more than one judge is the sense of sacrifice Spock exhibited in the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

In the 2010 Texas Supreme Court case of Robinson v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., Inc., self-confessed Star Trek fan Justice Don Willett used Spock to illustrate a point about distrust of intrusive government and limitations on the police power of the state, or how “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

As he put it, this utilitarian maxim owes much to “Spock’s famous line from his moment of sacrifice, ‘Don’t grieve, Admiral.  It is logical.  The needs of the many outweigh . . .’ to which Kirk replies ‘the needs of the few.’”

And in a 2011 California decision concerning measures taken for salmon spawning grounds (South Yuba River Citizens League v. National Marine Fisheries Service), another judge cited to the 1982 movie in echoing that “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the . . . one.”

Judges have also been quick to throw around catchphrases from the classic TV series when they seem to fit the situation.  In a 2007 California dispute over community property (In re Marriage of Ross), the court gracefully declined to make new law and “to boldly go where no [rational analysis] has gone before.”

And in a 1992 Illinois bankruptcy case involving two Star Trek convention promoters, the judge couldn’t resist paraphrasing the show’s famous opening lines:

"[T]his action is the voyage of two Star Trek convention promoters into litigation before this bankruptcy court; they explore and mix strange legal theories and ask the Court to seek out justice and do equity in this lawsuit of their creation; they boldly go where very few wise litigants have gone before . . ."

Meanwhile, in a 2011 Texas federal court case involving environmental claims (Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas v. Federal Highway Administration), the court borrowed another Star Trek catchphrase, warning that:

“Perhaps Homo sapiens will experience a Darwinian epiphany to take better care of their home before they return to it.  The alternative is a Captain Kirk moment: ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’”

Sometimes, judges make less obvious references in invoking Star Trek concepts or technology.  In a 1992 New York federal court decision about glide paths for aircraft on county property (County of Westchester v. Town of Greenwich, Connecticut), the court wryly observed that “Aircraft regularly passing overhead during their landings and takeoffs are hard to miss.  And defendants have offered no evidence . . . that any of the aircraft used the infamous Romulan cloaking device.”

And in a 2009 Ninth Circuit decision (Norwood v. Vance), the debate over a jury instruction using the word “deference” inspired the court to note that “deference” is a common English word, and is “not Urdu or Klingon.”

For bonus geek points, the dissenting judge actually cited a Klingon-English dictionary (yes, there is one), pointing out that for the warrior Klingon race, “unsurprisingly, there is no Klingon word for ‘deference.’”

Yes, sometimes lawyers and judges fly their geek flags proudly, channeling their inner Trekkie.  Beam me back to the courthouse!

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