Best Legal Opinion You've Ever Read?
November 6, 2014 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Attorneys, law students, anyone: what is the best legal opinion you've ever read? I am fascinated by legal rhetoric and I want to read the best-written, best-argued, opinions (majority or dissenting) you can come up with. Amicus briefs will also be accepted. And the case doesn't need to be historical or momentous, nor does it need to be a Supreme Court case, but cool of it is.
posted by AceRock to Law & Government (17 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

IANAL, but find these fascinating:

United States v One Book Called Ulysses
Meads v Meads
And the one I personally cite most, Arkell v Pressdram.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 3:13 PM on November 6, 2014

Here are some.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:14 PM on November 6, 2014

I think it is fair to say that one problem is that elegance and rhetorical skill only rarely goes hand in hand with the quality of a legal judgement.

I can only real speak to english legal cases, but in terms of how it should be done: Lord Bingham in the two belmarsh prison cases on detention without trial : A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department and the later case on the admissibility of evidence possibly obtained under torture
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:15 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Read some classic Lord Denning cases - lots on offer there
posted by hepta at 3:23 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favorites:

Mattel v. MCA Records (especially part VI and the Appendix)
Morland-Jones v. Taerk
posted by grouse at 3:30 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Judges who are respected for their writing:

Learned Hand
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Benjamin Cardozo

I disagree with him in almost everything, but Scalia is a great writer, too.

If you want some good fire, Notorious RBG has written some great dissents to recent SCOTUS cases.

Just google any of those folks for famous opinions.
posted by DGStieber at 3:35 PM on November 6, 2014

Judge Kent, late of the Southern District of Texas was a creep and a liar, who sexually harassed employees while sitting as a federal judge. But he was—and presumably still is—a damn fine writer. See, e.g., Republic of Bolivia v. Philip Morris Companies, 39 F. Supp. 2d 1008 (S.D. Tex. 1999); Bradshaw v. Unity Marine Corp., 147 F. Supp. 2d 668 (S.D. Tex. 2001); Smith v. Colonial Penn. Ins. Co., 943 F. Supp. 782 (S.D. Tex. 1996).
posted by ewiar at 3:46 PM on November 6, 2014

Because brevity is the soul of wit, here is the entirety of my favorite judicial decision:
Denny v. Radar Industries (28 Mich.App. 294, 184 N.W.2d 289): "The appellant has attempted to distinguish the factual situation in this case from that in Renfroe v. Higgins Rack Coating and Manufacturing Co., Inc. (1969), 17 Mich.App. 259, 169 N.W.2d 326. He didn't. We couldn't. Affirmed. Costs to appellee."
I have a weakness for cases where the judges DEPART from prose in their reasoning and head for poetry (which are surprisingly prevalent in IRS cases).

In a tax case against country singer Conway Twitty, the court included a country song in its ruling. (It also has an interestingly-written, succinct history of country music in the United States that is totally worth reading.) "Twitty Burger went belly up / But Conway remained true / He repaid his investors, one and all / It was the moral thing to do. / His fans would not have liked it / It could have hurt his fame / Had any investors sued him / Like Merle Haggard or Sonny James. / When it was time to file taxes / Conway thought what he would do / Was deduct those payments as a business expense / Under section one-sixty-two." (and so on)

Fisher v. Lowe has the case recitation and holding in verse mimicing "I think that I will never see / a poem as lovely as a tree." If you check in Westlaw, the case headnotes are in verse as well, everyone was getting in on the action.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:14 PM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are Canadian cases OK? I really liked Abel's dissent in Eric v. Lola. It may not be the pithiest, but it was highly convincing.
posted by vasi at 4:16 PM on November 6, 2014

I don't know if it's the best, but West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a First Amendment case overturning a law punishing children who did not salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance at school, is my favorite U.S. Supreme Court decision. Lots of good lines in there; this is probably the most famous passage:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
W. Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). The three paragraphs culminating in that sentence are all great, though, especially this: "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds." Id. at 641.
posted by amicus at 4:41 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAL, and I thought Judge Dalzell's concurrence in "ACLU vs. Reno" was outstanding. You can find it here. Search for "I begin with first principles".

("ACLU vs. Reno" was the suit which gutted the Communications Decency Act, where the government argued in favor of broad censorship powers over the internet. The Third Circuit told them to go to hell, and Dalzell's concurrence is a clear explanation of why. It was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the Third Circuit's decision.)
Four related characteristics of Internet communication have a transcendent importance to our shared holding that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face. We explain these characteristics in our Findings of fact above, and I only rehearse them briefly here. First, the Internet presents very low barriers to entry. Second, these barriers to entry are identical for both speakers and listeners. Third, as a result of these low barriers, astoundingly diverse content is available on the Internet. Fourth, the Internet provides significant access to all who wish to speak in the medium, and even creates a relative parity among speakers.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:57 PM on November 6, 2014

IANAL, but I once stumbled on this 1999 Superior Court of New Jersey decision about what the wording of a traffic sign meant. I was impressed by this: "Because of the possible statewide ramifications of our decision we, sua sponte, required participation by the Commissioner of Transportation and Attorney General." I was pleased that (apparently) the rights of a citizen regarding a traffic violation was taken that seriously.
posted by forthright at 8:04 PM on November 6, 2014

I think Holmes might be what you're looking for. One of my favorite books is The Essential Holmes, which is edited by Richard Posner, another judge known for his excellent writing. The book contains excerpts from judicial opinions, law-review articles, speeches, and personal letters written by Holmes.

Holmes's personal letters are particularly interesting, such as those on metaphysics and his theory of value.
posted by crLLC at 8:01 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

My favorite opinion is Justice Jackson dissenting in United States v. Ballard. The majority thought it was acceptable to base a criminal conviction for fraud on false representations about religion as long as the defendants did not sincerely believe the religion they professed. Excerpt from Jackson:
I do not know what degree of skepticism or disbelief in a religious representation amounts to actionable fraud. [William] James points out that 'Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.' Belief in what one may demonstrate to the senses is not faith. All schools of religious thought make enormous assumptions, generally on the basis of revelations authenticated by some sign or miracle. The appeal in such matters is to a very different plane of credulity than is invoked by representations of secular fact in commerce. Some who profess belief in the Bible read literally what others read as allegory or metaphor, as they read Aesop's fables. Religious symbolism is even used by some with the same mental reservations one has in teaching of Santa Claus or Uncle Sam or Easter bunnies or dispassionate judges. It is hard in matters so mystical to say how literally one is bound to believe the doctrine he teaches and even more difficult to say how far it is reliance upon a teacher's literal belief which induces followers to give him money.
I love the subtle question of whether people really believe their beliefs. And the joke about "dispassionate judges" is dropped in so beautifully.
posted by Alizaria at 8:16 AM on November 7, 2014

Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit writes some of the most concise and well-written opinions in the American Legal System.
posted by Dignan at 12:28 PM on December 2, 2014

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