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June 16, 2009

Judicial noir

There was something odd about the electric razor in the bathroom.

Thus begins a new, noir-ish opinion crafted by Judge Scott W. Stucky of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Judge Stucky, sticking with the hardboiled style, goes on describing a Marine Corps enlisted woman: 

"(She) typically changed clothes in the bathroom and for the past year had felt that she was being watched, a feeling that she attributed to paranoia. But this time the circumstances were simply too odd and her suspicions too strong.

And then:

"Her attempt to open the razor’s casing ended at Sears with a 'Torque' T7 screwdriver. Inside the razor she found a camera."

Nice detail, that: the Sears Torgue T7 screwdriver. All in all, this 25-page opinion dated June 11 gets started with a rare kick. It's the kind of hard-boiled literary styling that Chief Justice John Roberts attempted in a dissent last year, opposing a denial of writ of certiorari in Pennsylvania v. Dunlap, Roberts wrote:

"North Philly, May 4, 2001. Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift. Undercover surveillance. The neighborhood? Tough as a three-dollar steak."

In the new case United States v. Weston, Judge Stucky and the appellate panel considered the reasonableness of a search. Darrell Weston, at the time a Marine Corps staff sergeant, had denied investigators' request to search his home, but his wife assented. Weston ended up being convicted at court martial on charges including invasion of privacy.

Suits & Sentences is of two minds concerning these kinds of literary stylings. On the one hand, it's commendable when judges seek to write with verve. A little bit of zing can draw the reader in, which is  legitimate given a judicial opinion's education function. And, besides, hard-boiled is fun.

On the other hand, these are awfully serious issues -- just ask the court-martialed Marine, or the two Armed Forces appellate judges who filed separate opinions. It can seem a little iffy to have fun with a decision whose consequences are so life-changing

On the other, other hand...lighten up! And imagine what could be done with other, historic opinions...

William Marbury was mad. Boiling mad. He wanted his commission, and he wanted it now. But he had a problem...

Joseph Lochner squeezed the bread dough like it was the throat of one of those meddling do-gooders. They said he was working his bakery employees too hard. Hard! He slapped the dough down like he was affixing his signature to a contract, a binding contract.  He would show them hard...

The chad was hanging like a thief at dawn...


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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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