Some justices guilty of voicing their inner muse


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A high court judge usually hears thousands of appeals and writes hundreds of legal opinions each year. In order to liven up the grind, a handful of justices craft their rulings in rhyming couplets. A few even attempt to commit acts of literature.

The jurists who indulge their inner muse range in stature from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who dissented in a hard-boiled detective novel style to the majority opinion denying a North Philadelphia man judicial review, to a ruling by Sewickley-born Judge Deborah Servitto, of the Michigan appeals court, who delivered in rap lyric form her verdict on a defamation suit brought against the artist Eminem by a former schoolmate.

Some poetic gems from Pennsylvania jurists have endured for decades. However, bench bards sometimes get mixed reviews from the parties, their peers or the legal community for putting their literary egos before a more solemn execution of their duties.

The Post-Gazette does not take sides in the poetry wars. Instead, we bring you a sampling of excerpts from judges' non-standard opinions so that readers may render their own rulings.

Fake diamonds, flying poodles

When he is not playing his trusty harmonica for the assembled crowd, Justice J. Michael Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court frequently dabbles in (attempted) poetic justice. His opinions, critiqued for their flippancy by fellow justices Stephen A. Zappala Sr. and Ralph J. Cappy, run the gamut. A few highlights:

In Porreco v. Porreco, Justice Eakin dissented from the majority, holding a divorced man responsible for the fake diamond ring he had quoted in a pre-nuptial agreement as having cost him $21,000:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium

when his spouse finds he's given her a cubic zirconium

instead of a diamond in her engagement band,

the one he said was worth twenty-one grand ..."

He goes on to say that given the 30-year age gap between the bride and groom, it was unfair for Mr. Porreco to assume his fiancee would have had the ring appraised:

Given their history and Pygmalion relation,

I find her reliance was with justification.

Given his accomplishment and given her youth,

was it unjustifiable for her to think he told the truth?

In Zangrando v. Sipula, the state Superior Court reviewed Julia A. Zangrando's suit over vet bills after a walk one day when one of her miniature poodles (Angel, not Autumn) was struck by Jan Sipula's vehicle. Judge Eakin, then serving on lower appellate court, summarized:

The car was coming much too close, something inside told her // the next thing Mrs. Zangrando knew, a poodle flew over her shoulder.

To appellee this was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster // the wingless Angel'd taken flight and ascended quickly past her.

In this brace of miniature poodles, neither one wide nor tall // one may have been named Autumn, but 'twas Angel took the fall.

The impact could have killed the pup but Angel would survive // a doctor of the veterinary kept the dog alive.

The bill for Angel's treatment, though, was anything but small // and appellee felt that in the end, appellant should pay it all,

So she filed this civil action in Allegheny County court // seeking eleven hundred fifty-five dollars for the nearly fatal tort.

Justice Eakin also rhymed in a Superior Court case involving a pair of $48,000 breeder emus Washington resident Delores Liddle bought that had refused to breed:

Our appellant decided she ought to invest // in two breeding emus, but their conjugal nest

produced no chicks, so she tried to regain //her purchase money, but alas in vain...

The learned trial court, in well reasoned words // held Liddle's case was flightless as the birds.

and her appeal in turn we now must find // as barren as the breeders here maligned.

He mounted a lone dissent, explaining he thought that the state's DUI law should apply in the case of intoxicated horseback riders "to the driver of the mustang and Mustang alike." Further, to the tune of "Mr. Ed," the sitcom about a talking horse, he held:

A horse is a horse, of course, of course //but the Vehicle Code does not divorce // its application from, perforce //a steed, as my colleagues said.

"It's not vague" I'll say until I'm hoarse // and whether a car, a truck or horse // this law applies with equal force // and I'd reverse instead.

Finally, he concurred, in limerick form, that two auto shops in Limerick, Montgomery County, had names that were too similar:

"'Limerick Auto' and 'Limerick Collision'

Are so close one may clearly envision

That the two were the same,

So a limerick I frame,

And join in my colleagues' decision."

Breakfast brouhaha

The late William F. Cercone, who served on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, further disappointed a disgruntled Denny's customer, with his lighthearted take on the man's suit over whether he owed $2 for undercooked sausage sent back at a Westmoreland County Denny's restaurant:

Sausage and eggs! Sausage and eggs! $2.02 he refused to pay So now in court it's for us to say.

Sausage and eggs! It wasn't the price, the parties contend. It's the principle, they pretend.

Sausage and eggs! $2.02 involved. A sum so easily resolved. But no give or take here. They insist on a legal atmosphere.

Oh, in Uncle Sam's land, any person in court may protest. But, dear Lord, the Judge says: From this test, please give me rest.

On the other end of the state, the late U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Becker denied a request for dismissal in a rhyming 1972 opinion finding that a New York shipping company owed a Pennsylvania sailor lost wages, because the "long arm" of the law required them to do so:

A New York shipowner which, to its later dismay //Loaded a ship in Philly, Pa.

In the year of Our Lord 1972 // Could be served in a suit there by seafarer who //Claimed that his wages were long overdue.

... The defendant shipping company's office is based in New York City // and to get right down to the nitty gritty,

it has been brought to this Court by long arm service, //which has made it extremely nervous. // Long arm service is a procedural tool // founded upon a "doing business" rule.

But defendant has no office here, and says it has no mania // to do any business in Pennsylvania.

Rhyming on crime

Legal professionals say stylized opinions are a bit too cutesy for criminal cases. But the late District Court Judge Robert S. Gawthrop III found a way to make it work in an unpublished opinion upholding a cocaine conspiracy conviction:

To press a cause of rank frivolity //Would not fill this court with jollity. // Though counsel was a courtroom terror // He could not seed the case with error;

So nothing now could be much grander // Than witnessing his posttrial candor. //Lawyers tend to look facetious // Pressing issues merely specious.

Frank candor sure beats false bravado // Defending Claudio Rosado.

This is how I see the moral //Instead of never-ending quarrel // A broken record, crying "foul" //It's sometimes best to throw the towel.

Thus, before the bar of court // This defendant must report. //He shall have to do his time, //For punishment must fit the crime. // And that will have to end this rhyme.

Book belongs in the gutter

The late Justice Michael A. Musmanno, an appellate attorney for suspected anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who later presided at the Nuremberg trials, also gained fame on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court bench. That was thanks, in part, to a 1966 obscenity case in which he railed against the Henry Miller's book "Tropic of Cancer," a 1934 novel that was overtly sexual and was banned in the U.S. until 1961, which led to the charge that the book violated American obscenity laws.

In this case, his dissent is more prose than poem:

"... To say that 'Cancer' is worthless trash is to pay it a compliment. 'Cancer' is the sweepings of the Augean stables, the stagnant bilge of the slimiest mudscow, the putrescent corruption of the most noisome dump pile, the dreggiest filth in the deepest morass of putrefaction ... 'Cancer' is not a book. It is malignancy itself. It is a cancer on the literary body of America. I wonder that it can remain stationary on the bookshelf. One would expect it to generate self-locomotion just as one sees a moldy, maggoty rock move because of the creepy, crawling creatures underneath it."

"A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium

when his spouse finds he's given her a cubic zirconium..."

"So she filed this civil action in Allegheny county court

seeking eleven hundred fifty-five dollars for the nearly fatal tort."

"Sausage and eggs! Sausage and eggs!

$2.02 he refused to pay

So now in court it's for us to say."

"Thus, before the bar of court

This defendant must report.

He shall have to do his time,

For punishment must fit the crime.

And that will have to end this rhyme.

legalnews

Gabrielle Banks: ppgbanks@gmail.com.


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