From gavels to giggles


“Judicial humor is a dreadful thing. In the first place, the jokes are usually bad.”

— William Prosser

“In judicial language, that part of the Primer disapproving judicial humor is hereby overruled, set aside, held for naught, and stomped on!”

— Hon. George Rose Smith

As Professor Prosser, late dean of the law school at UC Berkeley, noted, the law is a serious business. The quote above is just part of a piece he penned in 1952 called, “The Judicial Humorist.” In it, he said, “The bench is not an appropriate place for unseemly levity. The litigant has vital interests at stake. His entire future, or even his life, may be trembling in the balance, and the robed buffoon who makes merry at his expense should be choked with his own wig.”

Certainly, he is right that there are a great many situations in the courtroom (the vast majority of them, actually) where humor would be out of place. But what Dean Prosser failed to permit an allowance for was what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo recognized and applauded — sometimes the facts or law are just so bizarre or humorous that a case or a written opinion are made better by the injection of some lightheartedness.

Take for example the case of United States ex rel. Mayo v. Satan and his Staff. In it, Mr. Mayo brought suit against the Prince of Darkness (and his apparent ‘staff’- who knew?) in the federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The court first noted that Mr. Mayo hadn’t really raised an actionable claim but then moved on to the real problem — the plaintiff hadn’t proven that Satan resided in Pennsylvania. Moreover, the court said, Mr. Mayo hadn’t instructed the local U.S. Marshal on how to serve Satan. In other words, he hadn’t told the Marshal where to go.

In Searight v. State of New Jersey, a prisoner sued the state for injuries he sustained as a result of medical treatment he got in jail. He apparently believed that the doctors had implanted a “radium electric beam” in his left eye that allowed someone to talk to him “on the inside of his brain.” The federal court in New Jersey observed that he had waited too long to sue and that repeated studies had shown that there was no such thing as E.S.P. But unable to restrain himself, Judge Vincent Biunno added, “Even aside from that, Searight could have blocked the broadcast to the antenna in his brain simply by grounding it. Just as delivery trucks for oil and gasoline are grounded against the accumulation of charges of static electricity, so on the same principle Searight might have pinned to the back of his trouser leg a short chain of paper clips so that the end would touch the ground and prevent anyone from talking to him inside his brain.” It isn’t clear whether the jail would let Searight have paper clips.

Then there was the case of Lodi v. Lodi in which the plaintiff and the defendant were both named Oreste Lodi. Actually, there were both the same Oreste Lodi, who had sued himself to quiet title to a piece of real estate. It seems that Mr. Lodi had been unlawfully using his own property for 61 years. Even when he wrote to himself to demand that he stop using it, he ignored his own letter and kept right on living on land that wasn’t his, but was actually his. When the court dismissed his claim, he appealed and filed two briefs — one for each side. The appeals court upheld the dismissal and found that, “It is true that, as plaintiff and appellant, Mr. Lodi loses, but it is equally true, as defendant and respondent, he wins! It is hard to imagine a more even-handed application of justice.” The final issue for the court to consider was whether Mr. Lodi, as victorious defendant, should “be awarded costs of suit on appeal, which he could thereafter recover from himself. However, we believe the equities are better served by requiring each party to bear his own costs on appeal.”

Then there was the 1983 case of Fisher v. Lowe, in which Mr. Fisher sued for damages when someone ran into a tree in his yard. Judge John Gillis, writing for a three judge appellate panel, flexed his poetry skills in affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the case, writing: ‘We thought that we would never see, a suit to compensate a tree. A suit whose claim in tort is prest, upon a mangled tree’s behest. A tree whose battered trunk was prest, against a Chevy’s crumpled crest. A tree that faces each new day, with bark and limb in disarray. A tree that may forever bear, a lasting need for tender care. Flora lovers though we three, we must uphold the court’s decree.”

These humorous cases and many, many more, can be found in the largest collection of judicial “humor” in print, “Corpus Juris Humorous,” published by Barnes and Noble Books, 1994.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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