Late Night Court: The Lyrical Comedy of Justice J. Michael Eakin
If Law & Order has taught us anything, it’s that comedy has no place in law and order (Although as Community, John Mulaney, and countless others have shown us, Law & Order has a very comfortable place within comedy). There are countless quirky character actors playing judges in film and television, not to mention Judges Judy and Joe Brown providing sassy verdicts. But it’s rare to see humor come from actual, non-reality-TV-star judges.
That is, except for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, who once opened a dissenting opinion (Noel v. Travis, 2002) by invoking the theme song from Mr. Ed:
A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed.
Go right to the source and ask the horse
He’ll give you the answer that you’ll endorse.
He’s always on a steady course.
Talk to Mr. Ed.
Unlike his fellow Justices, Eakin believed that individuals arrested while riding horses intoxicated (the individuals were intoxicated, not the horses) were in violation of DUI laws. For such a ridiculous situation, the homage to one of the lamest comedies in Eakin’s opinion seems downright justified. After providing a legitimate and non-TV theme based argument, he ends thusly:
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.
Because I cannot agree this statute is vague or ambiguous, I respectfully dissent.
The last line provides a comically abrupt ending — slamming the brakes in the middle — while simultaneously summing up his dissent.
Eakin is no stranger to writing with such flippancy. His early days on the Superior Court saw the judge injecting levity even into trials not involving drunken equestrians. For the pre-nup case Busch v. Busch, Eakin plays out a sour rom com in the vein of Intolerable Cruelty, or if you prefer a blander fare, Laws of Attraction:
Conrad Busch filed a timely appeal,
Trying to avoid a premarital deal
Which says appellee need not pay him support,
He brings his case, properly, before this Court.
They wanted to marry, their lives to enhance,
Not for the dollars — it was for romance.
When they said “I do,” had their wedding day kiss,
It was not about money — only marital bliss.
Large animals seem to provide the greatest inspiration for Eakin, as seen by his opinion of Liddle v. Schloze, which concerned two emus who neglected to produce offspring for their owner:
The emu’s a bird quite large and stately,
whose market potential was valued so greatly
that a decade ago, it was thought to be
the boom crop of the 21st century.
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.
Yes, oftentimes Eakin’s meter is a complete mess. And when he’s not relying on the an old TV theme song for his rhyme scheme, Eakin reverts to the good ol’ AABB structure. But his skills as a poet none withstanding, the fact that a Judge produces opinions in verse is automatically cause for applause, not to mention a few snickers.
Justice Eakin’s rhyme schemes have worked out well for him. In 2011, he won his Supreme Court retention election with 73.6% of the vote (according to Judgepedia, which is totally a real thing). Unfortunately, his legal lyricism appears to have dulled with age.
Eakin’s poetry has proven to work best in short form, with his verses acting as bookends to his opinions. But last year Eakin produced an entire opinion in verse. This would be Pennsylvania v. Goodson, wherein the accused forged a check from State Farm. It opens with a lumbering sextain:
In January, 2001, appellant’s car was in a collision.
His insurer totaled the aging New Yorker, then made a just division
of the value of the insurance claim, sending $6,289 to the lender;
the balance of $135, to appellant they made tender.
And thus the matter terminated, or so one might have thought,
but that was not to be, when Goodson’s later schemes were caught.
The poem does not improve. Of course, how could a case concerning something as mundane as check forgery provide the same brilliant inspiration as HUIs (Horse riding Under the Influence). The Pennsylvania v. Goodson opinion ends on an awkward grace note:
What Goodson did is serious, but doesn’t comprise this crime—
There’s simply no rhyme nor reason for it, for these reasons (and in rhyme).
The only reason to Justice Eakin’s rhyme seems to be the simple desire to entertain. Defending his methods to the The New York Times, he said “You have an obligation as a judge to be right… but you have no obligation to be dull.” Hopefully, Eakin’s desire to be more than dull will carry over to the courtroom itself, and he will grace us with an entrance while citing another pillar of the law community: Judge Pigmeat Markham.
Justin Geldzahler excitedly awaits David E. Kelley’s return to the law profession.