Article Title

The Quotable Jurist


Christopher A. Anzalone, The Encyclopedia of Supreme Court Quotations. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. Pp. xiv, 395. $83.95.

Full Disclosure: I edited The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations. The book being reviewed, Encyclopedia of Supreme Court Quotations by Christopher A. Anzalone, might be considered a work competing with my own volume, so readers should take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

"Legal quotation" is a somewhat oxymoronic concept when applied to case law. Judicial discourse is long-winded, and the need for precision or pseudo-precision is usually valued far more highly than literary qualities are by judicial writers. Looking at American sources, most quotable authors on law-related subjects have not been judges but rather academics (Karl Llewellyn, Fred Rodell, Alexander Bickel, John Chipman Gray), statesmen (Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Daniel Webster), literary figures (H.L. Mencken, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville), or satirists (Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers, Finley Peter Dunne). Among judges, four individuals (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Jackson, Learned Hand, and Benjamin Cardozo) account for a very high percentage of all quotable passages in opinions, and if these four were excluded, the landscape would be an extremely barren one.

The paucity of good judicial quotes has become more pronounced in recent decades. Some of the explanation lies in the fact that the last of the "Big Four" died in 1961. Some lies in the tendency of recent opinions to be ghost-written by clerks who are unlikely to insert bold or humorous pronouncements in their boss's decisions. Some may lie in a general decline of modern art and thought. Conservative court-watchers champion Antonin Scalia as a titan of eloquence on the contemporary United States Supreme Court, but I believe that they are influenced by partisanship and today's greatly lowered standards. Consider this quip, widely considered to be one of Scalia's best: "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the Court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing.... But this wolf comes as a wolf." Not exactly one for the ages, in my view.