Tradition of Judicial Humor Continues with Giuliani Lawsuit Against Duke

May 20, 2009 06:15 PM
by Mark E. Moran
The legal industry isn’t as dry as most people think, as an opinion dismissing a breach of contract suit involving Andrew Giuliani shows.

Judge’s Opinion Full of Puns, Movie References

A federal magistrate judge has recommended dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, against Duke University. The suit, brought in federal court in North Carolina, alleged, among other things, breach of contract by Duke for dismissing the younger Giuliani from its golf team. 

Duke University said Giuliani was thrown off the team, “because of a series of angry outbursts,” the Daily News reported. Those allegedly included throwing an apple at a former teammate’s face and breaking a golf club.

The magistrate’s opinion was reported on The Smoking Gun Web site. While most legal opinions make for uninteresting reading to laypeople, Magistrate Judge Wallace Dixon included several entertaining golf references in his opinion, continuing a long tradition of judicial humor in court opinions.

When Giuliani’s lawyers tried to change an argument, the judge likened it to “trying to change clubs after hitting the golf ball.” Responding to a worthy argument that did not alter the result of the case, the judge said it “serves as a putter, where Plaintiff needed a sand wedge to get out of the hazard.” With regard to another argument, the judge asserted that “Plaintiff attempts to take a mulligan … however, this shot also lands in the drink.”

The most important part of any legal proceeding is the closing argument, and Judge Dixon saved his best for last. When Giuliani introduced a new legal theory on which he should prevail, the judge invoked the immortal words of Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray in “Caddyshack”: “He’s on the final hole. He’s about 455 yards away, he’s gonna hit about a 2 iron, I think.”

Background: Humorous opinions from the High Court down

Even the justices of the Supreme Court give in to the temptation to inject a little levity into legal proceedings. The Volokh Conspiracy invited its readers to submit humorous opinions given by the U.S. Supreme Court. Writings of Justice Antonin Scalia dominated the responses.

One is from the 2001 PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, which involved a disabled golfer who sued the PGA for the right to use a golf cart to move from hole to hole. Scalia questioned the Court’s role in the case:

“I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? The answer, we learn, is yes. The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a ‘fundamental’ aspect of golf.” offers a collection of humorous court cases and legal opinions.  It cites Fisher v. Lowe, a 1983 case before the Michigan Court of Appeals, in which a homeowner sued a car owner for striking plaintiff’s oak tree, necessitating special care for the tree. The court’s opinion, written by Judge Gillis, draws inspiration from Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees:”

      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.

Judges are at their most colorful when criticizing the work of attorneys. In Bradshaw v. Unity Marine, a 2001 personal injury case, Judge Samuel B. Kent, a federal judge in Texas, prefaced the court’s opinion with these biting words:

“Before proceeding further, the Court notes that this case involves two extremely likable lawyers, who have together delivered some of the most amateurish pleadings ever to cross the hallowed causeway into Galveston, an effort which leads the Court to surmise but one plausible explanation. Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact—complete with hats, handshakes and cryptic words—to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the Court would be so charmed by their child-like efforts that their utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed. Whatever actually occurred, the Court is now faced with the daunting task of deciphering their submissions. With Big Chief tablet readied, thick black pencil in hand, and a devil-may-care laugh in the face of death, life on the razor's edge sense of exhilaration, the Court begins.”

The library of the University of Washington School of Law has compiled an extensive collection of legal humor. The section called “Parody & Verse in Opinions” notes opinions in which judges have invoked, among others, “The Raven,” “Let It Snow,” “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Ecclesiastes.

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