Dear Mr. Chief Justice

Everyone’s buzzing about the scolding you gave Congress in your year-end report on the federal judiciary for playing politics with judicial nominations.  In particular, they’re quoting this sentence:  “Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.” It is a good line a memorable line — all right, it’s a clunker, but you’re spot on about the partisan gamesmanship that is fast becoming the salient feature of our democracy.  So good for you.  But I was actually hoping to speak to you about a different part of your report.

Respectfully, sir, what’s up with that introduction?

In 1935—in the midst of the Great Depression—many Americans sought respite from the Nation’s economic troubles at their local movie theaters, which debuted now-classic films, such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Top Hat, and Night at the Opera. Moviegoers of that era enjoyed a prelude of short features as they settled into their seats. As the lights dimmed, the screen beamed previews of coming attractions, Merrie Melody cartoons, and the Movietone newsreels of current events. The 1935 news shorts also provided many Americans with their first look at the Supreme Court’s new building, which opened that year.

Verisimilitude is well and good, but telling us the names of three movies, a cartoon and the newsreel producer isn’t color; it’s a slab of white frosting.  And:  The lights dim, the screen beams? Oh dear.  I would have preferred this to come from someone else  — you haven’t eliminated law clerks from the budget, have you? — but your prologue sucks is not very good.  It is not simply the overwriting (though the overwriting is surprising.  Whatever happened to narrowness?).  The main problem is that it’s just silly.  Asking us to imagine the new court building glowing in the reflected romance of Astaire and Rogers is silly.  Summoning the zeitgeist of a more artless time . . . not silly per se, but silly when you do it (plus, that 1935 court was filled with flinty connivers who were intent on dismantling the New Deal).   I could say more but I expect that Justice Scalia has already circulated a parody of your paragraph.  It feels unkind to go on.

I hope that these comments will not discourage you (altogether) from further efforts at creative exposition.  For instance, although it was goofy, I kind of like what you did with your dissent from the denial of cert in Pennsylvania v. Dunlap.

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. Devlin knew. Five years on the beat, nine months with the Strike Force. He’d made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.

Devlin spotted him: a lone man on the corner. Another approached. Quick exchange of words. Cash handed over; small objects handed back. Each man then quickly on his own way. Devlin knew the guy wasn’t buying bus tokens. He radioed a description and Officer Stein picked up the buyer. Sure enough: three bags of crack in the guy’s pocket. Head downtown and book him. Just another day at the office.

If I may say, the whole Dashiell Hammett macho-minimalista thing really suits you.  Perhaps more efforts along that line in future.

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