Bobbleheads of justice
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The oldest item in Yale Law School's rare book collection is a 1,000-year-old fragment of a medieval manuscript bound inside an Italian guidebook for notaries. The newest is a bobblehead doll depicting William H. Rehnquist, 16th chief justice of the United States.
Fred R. Shapiro, an associate librarian, explained the latest acquisition: "A hundred years from now, if someone wants to study the bobbleheads, where will they go? There needs to be an archive."
And so the Lillian Goldman Law Library, which probably has the best collection of rare law books in the world after Harvard and the Library of Congress, is now the official repository of bobbling likenesses of a dozen Supreme Court justices.
"The bobbleheads are, not to overstate it, a little bit more than toys," said Ross E. Davies, the editor in chief of The Green Bag, which calls itself "an entertaining journal of law" and created the dolls. "They're portrayals of the work and character of these judges."
The bobblehead of Justice David H. Souter, for instance, wears heavy gold jewelry and sits on a lifeguard stand, reminders of his opinions in a copyright case involving the rap group 2 Live Crew and a sexual harassment case brought by a female lifeguard. In a second copyright case, Justice Souter referred to "the latest release by Modest Mouse"; his bobblehead plays a snippet of a song by the band.
These new acquisitions present challenges. "I don't know if anyone has cataloged bobbleheads before," Mr. Shapiro said. "This might be breaking new ground."
Part of the bobblehead collection was opened to public view this month in the law school's rare book exhibition gallery, joining a display of "medieval manuscript fragments in law book bindings."
Mike Widener, the school's rare book librarian, said he had put some thought into which recent justices to highlight, settling on Justice Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens. "I did try to provide a bit of ideological balance," Mr. Widener said.
Jonathan Zelig, a second-year student, said the exhibit brightened the room, which can be "a little staid." But he noted a shortcoming. "I have to notice that none of the justices graduated from Yale Law School," Mr. Zelig said. "That is a disappointment."
The Green Bag has created about one bobblehead a year, starting with the late Chief Justice Rehnquist in 2003 and adding more mostly in reverse order of seniority. It has not yet reached the three Yale graduates on the court: justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor. Mr. Davies, a law professor at George Mason University, said a Mr. Thomas doll is planned for next year.
The journal makes 1,000 to 2,000 of each bobblehead. They are not for sale. "We make no promises about when we will make them or who will get them," the journal's website says, though subscribers seem to have pretty good luck.
Mr. Davies said two words best describe the journal's bobblehead distribution policy. "Caprice," he said, "and willy-nilly." That is frustrating for the aficionados who prize the dolls and have been known to pay thousands of dollars for a single one in online auctions.
The Yale bobblehead collection has some rarities, including a bobblehead of Justice Antonin Scalia featuring allusions to his majority opinions. Only one exists; the official version focuses on his dissents.
In showing two visitors around the Paskus-Danziger Rare Book Room and the vault behind it, Mr. Widener moved easily between the old world and the new one. He spoke excitedly about a new acquisition -- an Italian translation of Blackstone's commentaries on criminal law from 1813. Then, perhaps inevitably, he told a joke.
"The oldest lawyer joke I'm aware of is actually from the Middle Ages," he said. It involves a successful lawyer who renounces material things and joins a monastery. The abbot gives him responsibility for the monastery's financial affairs, but things do not go well. Punch line: "It's because I'm not allowed to lie anymore."
The bobbleheads fit the library's mission, Mr. Widener said. "They remind me of other things in the collection -- illustrated law books, mainly from the Continent, with allegorical title pages," he said. "There's a symbolic language."
First Published March 21, 2010 12:44 am