“A murky law plus a snarky judge equals some memorable judicial sarcasm”

Charles Lane WaPo column:

Eloquence has a rich history in American jurisprudence, as any law student knows. Less famous, perhaps, but more provocative, is the tradition of judicial sarcasm.

In a clever 2015 essay, “The Most Sarcastic Justice,” law professor Richard L. Hasen documented snide Supreme Court opinions from 1986 through 2013, noting that Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, produced more than his colleagues.

This did not surprise anyone familiar with the conservative stalwart’s dissents; a typical one from 2011 mocked the court’s majority for “mak[ing] itself the obfuscator of last resort.” Still, Scalia’s average rate of 2.78 sneers per year was remarkable — double the next four justices (three liberals and a conservative) combined.

Hasen mused on the practical effect of Scalia’s biting wit, suggesting it sometimes enhanced his points but possibly alienated temperamentally, and ideologically, more moderate justices. Support for that notion comes from research summarized in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, to the effect that workplace sarcasm “can produce higher levels of perceived conflict.”

Which brings us to recent events in the Supreme Court — of New York, the county-level venue for mundane civil and criminal trials, per that state’s odd judicial nomenclature.

One judge, Jeffrey Zimmerman, made headlines recently by unloading Scalia-level snideness on the legislators who wrote New York’s new bail laws. In a July 24 ruling addressing a gun-crime defendant, he quoted the lyrics of a Grateful Dead song — “Maybe you’ll find direction / Around some corner where it’s been waiting to meet you” — then added that the band’s writers “never read New York’s bail reform statutes,” because those laws offer judges no “direction,” only “obfuscation” and “a confusing mess.”

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