31 December 2005

Dispute Resolution: Judicial Humour from across the Pond

My email today brought New Year's greetings from India and Australia (which I warmly reciprocate and pass on) and a bulletin of today's stories in the New York Times.

There are three stories on the law though none on intellectual property and technology. One is about the death penalty in China which is harrowing. It is a useful reminder to those of us who were disappointed by the governor of California's failure to spare Mr Tookie Williams (after he had already served a term of imprisonment that most civilized countries would regard as sufficient punishment for the crimes of which he had been convicted) that there are some parts of the world that are a great deal more bloodthirsty than the USA. Another is about the welcome drop in crime in New York. But the most entertaining is an article by Adam Liptak "So, Guy Walks Up to the Bar, and Scalia Says..." on the number of jokes cracked over the years by the various judges of the US federal supreme court.

According to Mr Liptak, Mr Justice Scalia tops the league with 77 laughs with Mr Justice Thomas at the bottom with no jokes to his name at all. Mrs Justice Ginsberg scores only 4. The new chief justice has already made his mark in just his first term by coming in a very respectable third. As Mr Liptak observes, "what passes for humor (sic) at the Supreme Court would probably not kill at the local comedy club." From the examples that he lists, however, I don't think that their lordships do too badly, especially since most Americans are far too deadly serious about everything, and their sense of humour seems (to my ears at any rate) to be much closer to that of our EC partners in Bundesrepublik Deutschlands than it is to ours. Take this quip by Mr Justice Kennedy for instance:
"Recently I lost my luggage," Justice Kennedy said. "I had to go to the lost and found at the airline, and the lady said has my plane landed yet.""[Laughter.]"

That at least survives translation to the printed page which most of the attempts at levity from the judges I have had to appear before would not. Most of the funnies attributed to "old Ziggie" - I don't know his real name because I never appeared before him but he would probably have been the Northern Circuit's answer to Mr Justice Scalia - after the port has circulated around the mess several times are far less memorable. The best advocate for laughs in my book is Leolin Price QC and the best judge has to be Sir Robin Jacob, who is amusing even when putting the boot in. In my neck of the woods, Judge Behrens in Leeds has had his moments and Judge Maddocks in Manchester has made me smile more than once. I won't say who are the worse wits at our Bar but those who think they are funny and are flattered by their instructing solicitors for their courtroom humour (probably when avoiding paying them or, worse, junior members of their chambers) rarely are.

The source for Mr Liptak's article is a new journal called "The Green Bag". Why "Green Bag"? Apparently, that is a receptacle in which members of the US legal profession traditionally carried their papers and law students their casebooks. It became a simile for a repository of knowledge. The journal is named after a publication which circulated in the USA between 1889 and 1914 and carried contributions from such distinguished writers as Louis Brandeis, Roscoe Pound, and Elihu Root.

I wish the new Green Bag well and I wish anyone who reads this blog a very happy and prosperous New Year.

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