David Bruce: Law Anecdotes

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas is the Supreme Court ruling that struck down segregation by establishing that “separate” is inherently unequal. If not for this ruling, segregation would most likely still be legal in the U.S. Although the ruling was unanimous in striking down segregation, it possibly could have gone the other way. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson was a conservative Kentuckian whom civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall blamed for holding up action on the case. Mr. Marshall worried about Chief Justice Vinson, feeling that he would uphold segregation and convince the other justices to vote against integrating public schools. However — fortunately for civil rights — Chief Justice Vinson told his wife that he had a stomachache, then a short time afterward he died of a heart attack. This allowed Earl Warren to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he turned out to be an effective advocate for civil rights. The Supreme Court upheld the right of seven-year-old Linda Brown, an African American, to go to a White school a few blocks from her house instead of being forced to travel by bus to a school for “Negroes.”

In 1692, the Salem Witch Trials resulted in the hanging of 19 people, mostly women. In addition, a man named Giles Corey was “pressed to death.” Mr. Corey had refused to testify at his trial, because he knew that if he testified and was found guilty of being a witch, all his property would legally be seized by the British government. Since no accused person had been found innocent in the trials, he felt that he would definitely be found guilty. However, if he did not testify in court, he could not be found guilty according to the laws of the time, although persons who refused to testify suffered “a punishment hard and severe.” Mr. Corey was 80 years old, but his jailors decided to torture him to make him confess. They made him lie down on his back, then they put a board over him and loaded heavy flat stones on the board. Mr. Corey was a man of courage, and he still declined to testify. Eventually, so much weight was placed on him that his rib cage caved in.

John Marshall and the other Supreme Court justices enjoyed a drink now and again — and again and again. However, prompted by reports that people were concerned about their drinking, they decided not to drink during their weekly consultation — unless it was raining. The next time they met, Chief Justice Marshall asked Justice Joseph Story to look out a window to see if it was raining. Justice Story checked, then reported, “Mr. Chief Justice, I have very carefully examined this case, and I have to give it as my opinion that there is not the slightest sign of rain.” Since Chief Justice Marshall wanted a drink, he replied, “Justice Story, I think that is the shallowest and most illogical opinion I have ever heard you deliver. You forget that our jurisdiction is as broad as the Republic, and by the laws of nature it must be raining some place in our jurisdiction. Waiter, bring on the rum!”

President Richard Nixon wanted very much to replace liberal Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall with a conservative Justice. However, since Justices are appointed to the Supreme Court for life, the only way he could do this was for Justice Marshall to resign because of ill health or to die. In 1970, a life-threatening case of pneumonia forced Justice Marshall to be hospitalized. President Nixon wanted to see Justice Marshall’s medical records, so Justice Marshall signed a release of his records — but only after he wrote on them, “Not Yet!”

An insurance salesman persistently pursued comedian W.C. Fields, and Mr. Fields was completely unable to shake him, as the salesman followed him everywhere — even into a barber shop. Finally, Mr. Fields said, “Just to get rid of you, I’ll talk to my lawyer about it in the morning.” Excited, the insurance salesman asked, “And will you do the right thing if he likes my offer?” Mr. Fields replied, “I certainly will — I’ll get another lawyer.”

Playwright Ferenc Molnar customarily slept late in the morning. One day, he was forced to rise early so he could serve as a witness at a court case. Standing outside his door, he was astonished at the hustle and bustle of people going about their business. “Great heavens!” he said. “Are all these people witnesses in this fool case?”

George Frideric Handel’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, not a composer, so he was against his son’s learning to play musical instruments. Fortunately, Handel’s mother was sympathetic to his love of music, and she smuggled a clavichord into the attic for him to practice on while his father was asleep.

Robert Smith, who was a lawyer and the brother of Sydney Smith, once argued with a physician, who said, “I don’t say that all lawyers are thieves, but you’ll have to admit that your profession does not make angels of men.” Mr. Smith replied, “You doctors certainly have the best of us there.”

A law professor taught his class the tricks of the trade: “When you’re fighting a case, if you have the facts on your side, hammer them into the jury. If you have the law on your side, hammer it into the judge. But if you have neither the facts nor the law on your side, hammer the table.”

So many sightings of the ape-like creature called Bigfoot have been made around Skamamia, Washington, that the citizens passed a law making it illegal to kill a Bigfoot. Apparently, people in the state of Washington are law abiding because no one has ever been convicted of killing a Bigfoot.

In 1930, Paul Hindemith’s opera Neues vom Tage was produced in Breslau. After the performance, the gas company sued Mr. Hindemith because his heroine sang the praises of electricity over gas: “Constant hot water, no horrid smell, no danger of explosion.”

At La Scala, early in his career, conductor Arturo Toscanini was so offended by a musician that he threw his baton at him and injured his eye. The musician sued, and the Maestro was forced to pay damages.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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