Let’s face it—when we usually think of judges, we think of them as little more than stern, humorless authority figures, perpetual bearers of a dour expression as if to remind all onlookers of the immense gravity of court proceedings.
For such judges, the words in their orders and judicial opinions are to be read as the most omniscient of narratives, like pronouncements from Mount Olympus itself. Most legal scholars and observers readily excuse such a detached style, pointing out that judges must remain aloof in order to maintain the necessary aura of authority and impartiality.
I have a different take on this. Judges are human, too, as recent headlines like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice caught up in an email porn scandal remind us. My favorite judges are the ones who embrace their humanity and strive to remain accessible in their professional roles.
Sometimes they inject a little humor or a pop culture reference or two into their opinions. One of my personal favorites is Justice Don Willett of the Supreme Court of Texas.
His opinions are well-written, scholarly, and well-reasoned, as you would expect from a judge on our state’s highest court. But Justice Willett is also intellectually secure enough to throw in the occasional dose of humor or pop culture, as when he cited “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” for the principle of the good of the many outweighs the good of the one.
Justice Willett takes the same everyman approach off the bench. He is active on Twitter; since joining the social networking site in 2009, he’s authored over 12,800 tweets.
When The New York Times referred to him in a recent profile as “the most avid judicial tweeter in America,” Justice Willett responded with typical humor that such a distraction was “like being the tallest munchkin in Oz.”
His tweets run the gamut from mentions of family outings, sports talk, and occasional forays into political commentary to witty observations. A Sept. 8 tweet included a photo of two federal judges during an appellate argument, one appearing to doze off while the other engaged in a little nasal exploration, complete with the caption, “This is why some judges (not me) resist cameras in the courtroom.”
Last year, he tweeted a photo of a delicious-looking Bundt cake with the caption “I like big bundts and I cannot lie” — a sly reference to the iconic rap song “Baby Got Back.”
While Justice Willett is keenly aware of the pitfalls of social media, he also embraces the opportunity to connect with the public; after all, he points out, they vote and we live in an age in which it is “political malpractice” not to use social media.
Justice Willett isn’t the only entertaining judge out there. Justice Joseph Quinn of Canada’s Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently issued an opinion in The Hearing Clinic (Niagara Falls) Inc. v. 866073 Ontario Limited, a contentious breach of contract lawsuit that dragged on for nearly 3 years over the purchase of a hearing aid business.
After 72 days of trial, Judge Quinn awarded the plaintiff a whopping $423.20. The reasons for the minimal award have much to do with how unconvincing the judge found the plaintiff, Stefan Fridricksson, to be.
As Judge Quinn put it, “Fridriksson has taken everyone on a hideously time-consuming and obscenely expensive journey down his private yellow brick road to the outskirts of the Emerald City where, it appears, he has a residence. It was not a worthwhile adventure.”
Justice Quinn reserved his best zingers for recounting how Fridriksson fared as a witness. As he led off, the Canadian jurist observed that, “Determining credibility can be a challenge for a trial judge. We have no special powers in that realm and, wherever possible, avoid reliance upon darts, dice, and Ouija boards. However, rarely has a witness generously offered up so many reasons to be disbelieved. Fridriksson was an evidentiary gift who kept on giving. He ignored rule number one in the Litigants’ Credo: ‘Know thyself, because others soon will.’ Enough of this preamble, come with me now on a visit to the phantasmagorical world of Fridriksson. Pack lightly.”
Justice Quinn continued the barbed and often hilarious analysis of Fridriksson’s testimony, saying that “In the world of Monty Python, Fridriksson would be the Minister of Silly Expectations,” and that Fridriksson “plays Lieutenant Columbo with Inspector Clouseau results.” After Fridriksson finished testifying, the judge noted, the plaintiff was “noticeably dazed, his credibility was reduced to existential confetti and he even appeared to be physically shorter than when the trial began.” Ouch! By that point, the judge said, “The case for the plaintiff was leaking oil (at one point, I thought that I saw smoke).”
The opinion itself is very long, but well worth a read for the humor value alone. Justice Willett and Justice Quinn, thanks for restoring my faith in judges’ humanity.