Sunday, April 20, 2008

Appellate Haiku

by Greg Lawless

Having finished a recent clump of Advance Sheets placed on my desk by the Advance Sheet Fairy (the person in our office who accumulates several hundred of them and then, in the dead of night, delivers them to my IN bin), and having drawn my usual wealth of information from them (to wit, crime does not pay - based on the large number of criminal cases in the Advance Sheets - and because few criminals seem pleased with the results of their trials), I have come away with the feeling that my time was largely wasted. If only it didn't take so long to read all of those cases I wouldn't mind, but terse hardly describes an appellate decision.

Since real estate law is my primary focus, why do I read the criminal law cases? It's because I know - I just know - that someday in a footnote the High Court will proclaim:

The Court has decided Scarface's sentence will stand and, by the way, we have also decided to use the Native American concept that people cannot own land, consequently there is no more real estate law, and all real estate lawyers will starve to death.

How, then, to improve the Advance Sheets?

The solution is not an easy one, but once the answer occurred to me it was so obvious it was almost embarrassing: simply require that all Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions be done as haiku poems!

Of course, you may say, "Why didn't I think of that?" The Advance Sheets would become the Advance Sheet!

I don't really worry about the brevity of the haiku form causing problems for the court. Let's face it - even the great cases are only remembered for one or two issues.

Take Miranda v. Arizona. All anyone knows about that case is that it stands for the notion that the police have to read a defendant his or her constitutional rights after an arrest. But is that all the case says? No way; it goes on and on and on. It could have been presented much more effectively as a haiku. Under the new system of Appellate Haiku the case would appear as follows:

Miranda v. Arizona, 165 US 456 (1964)

First, before all talk
Know constitutional rights.
Plum blossom descends.

Now there's a decision I can understand, took a few seconds to read, and has the simple beauty inherent in haiku!

Imagine how impressed your clients will be when you can not only recite the law, but recite it word for word, having memorized the entire case! Picture this conversation:

"Mr. Lawless, do you think I have an easement?"

"Mr. Halmwitz, that was covered in Johnson v. Ferndale, which held

Prescriptive it is not
Descriptive, yet it is a right
Snow melts and is wet."

I think my revolutionary, yet practical, idea could be used in the lower courts as well, though I would suggest different styles of poetry for each court. Probably sonnets for superior court, heroic couplets in district court, and limericks for municipal court. I believe it will not only lessen the volume of paperwork but would be much easier on the client as well.

The point was driven home to me recently as I was in the Municipal Court Building to pay a traffic ticket. Since the line was about four miles long, I decided to peek into municipal court to see if anything interesting was going on. I asked the clerk which court was in session. I was told that in one particular courtroom they were going to have the arraignment calendar, but, before that, a defendant was going to be given the results of a jury trial that had just been completed.

I walked into the courtroom and instantly spotted the defendant. His pale complexion nicely contrasted with the bright rings in his ears, nose, cheeks and lips. His purple hair was cut very short, at least on the left side, revealing that the tattoo on the side of his head which said "Maggot" was the same color as the one on his butt ("Fred") which you could see through the tear in his black pants, which matched his black, high-top tennis shoes, tee shirt, socks and switchblade. You could tell he was the defendant because he was dressed more nicely than the ones waiting for arraignment, probably to impress the jurors.

The judge stated, "Fred Borkins, having been tried by a jury of your peers, and the jury having reached a verdict, you hath been found culpable of the offense of driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants for which you shall receive a sentence after a pre-sentence report hath been completed."

Fred the Defendant walked out of the courtroom with a friend of his. "How did you do, man?" "Not sure, but I think I won, man." Fred replied.

But there'd be no confusion if the judge had stated, plainly, simply:

There once was a defendant named Fred
Driving drunk, the police officer said.
He was tried by a jury
Who vented their fury,
Now he'll hang by the neck until dead.

Now that we have the solution to lengthy court decisions, it's just a matter of implementing it. I recognize it may take a while, since judges probably aren't as adept yet at poetry as, say, for example, I am. But I think it's reasonable to have this proposal fully underway within a couple of weeks.

According to his website: Greg graduated summa cum laude from Washington State University and received his law degree in 1978 from the University of Washington. Greg is recognized for his expertise in real estate, business and corporate matters. Greg is a frequent lecturer at legal education seminars, writes articles for the Bar News, and is the Past Chair of the Real Property section of the King County Bar Association. He is the primary author of the Washington Lawyers Practice Manual real property section. Greg was given the honor of being selected as a "Super Lawyer" by Washington Law and Politics magazine. He is also known for his love of golf, banjo, karate, and fly fishing."

This article was originally published in the April, 1994 issue of the Washington State Bar News but is not, AKAIK, available anywhere else on the internet, hence its appearance here.

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