November 15, 2012
“We now share Cardozo’s belief that an opinion may not be the worse for being lightened by a smile.”
— Judge George R. Smith
“Law is like a book of surgery — there are a great many terrible cases in it.”
— Law and Laughter, 1913
Judges are supposed to be staid, calm and emotionless beings who listen attentively to the evidence and then issue a well-reasoned and balanced opinion. Most of the time, that’s what they strive to do. But judges are people and they are subject to the same emotions and frustrations that we all are. Sometimes those frustrations boil over into their written decisions and they cannot help but issue a judicial “smackdown.”
This week came two of the snarkiest judicial orders you’ll ever see. These were cases where the behavior of one of the parties was so extreme or the foundation of their case so obviously frivolous that the judges could not refrain from editorializing in their written decisions.
In a Texas case, a lawsuit had been filed by the mother of a former high school cheerleader. It seems that her daughter and another, older girl on the team had gotten into a dispute that centered around a boy that they both liked. The older girl was the captain of the squad (and the alleged boyfriend-stealer). The younger girl failed to make the cut for the varsity squad the following year. What’s a mom to do in that circumstance?
Make a federal case out it, apparently.
The mother of the younger girl filed a federal civil rights action against the school. Her case was dismissed by the federal trial court and she appealed. A simple finding that the case was without merit would have sufficed, but Judge Jerry Smith was so outraged that the case had been brought at all and at the expense of the public school district that had to defend it, he editorialized.
His first paragraph set the tone, “Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter that has no place in federal court or any other court.” Reporting on the case, the Dallas Observer noted that the lawsuit’s basic complaints included that the school failed to remove the other cheerleader after she admitted to kissing the plaintiff’s daughter’s boyfriend; that the way dances were choreographed was unfair; that the cheerleading banquet was set on a day the plaintiff’s daughter could not attend; and that other parents threatened to sue the plaintiff because she refused to return cheerleading videos that did not belong to her.
The court then undertook a very serious and well-reasoned 24-page review of the facts and law. In particular, the Court cited one passage of the appeal that was simply unintelligible. In a footnote the Court stated, “Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. The sentence containing the word ‘incompetence’ makes no sense as a matter of standard English prose, so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed. It is ironic that the term ‘incompetence’ is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself.”
Not to be outdone, the Federal District Court in Washington D.C. had to deal with a case in which the plaintiff repeatedly failed to comply with a rule that requires all but the final four digits of Social Security numbers to be removed from documents filed with the court. The plaintiff’s first filing included the entire numbers. Her second filing correctly removed them. Her third filing put them back in again. Her fourth filing left in the first five, but removed the last four — the opposite of what the rule requires. Then she claimed that the court clerk was deliberately sabotaging her case. At that point, the judge had had enough. He issued an order that contained the not-so-judicious statement, “wasting the court’s time with this nonsense is not the way for plaintiff to have any hope of prevailing in this case” and the even more blunt, “Plaintiff is either toying with the court or displaying her own stupidity.”
Neither of these decisions tops the best exercise of judicial frustration in American history. That distinction remains with federal judge Gregory Presnell of Florida. In 2006, he had a case where the parties couldn’t even settle on where to meet to hold depositions. After they had filed repeated motions about that simple issue he ordered the lawyers to meet, Wild-West shootout style, on the steps of the courthouse. Why? Rock-Paper-Scissors. Best two out of three. Winner gets to pick the deposition location.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.