If you aren’t a lawyer, you probably haven’t read judicial opinions. Understanding the law requires reading and analyzing cases. To the non-lawyers out there, opinions may seem dry and complicated. Admittedly, there are times they are. But many opinions are fun to read. There are great examples of wit and wisdom. Even as a non-lawyer, you should read some. Not only because reading judicial opinions gives you a better understanding of the law, but also because it can be fun. Seriously.
What are opinions? When deciding a case, courts issue opinions. Opinions cite the cases, statutes, and regulations upon which the Court relied in reaching its decision and sets forth its reasoning for reaching the decision. Opinions of appellate courts become precedent, that is they bind the decisions of Courts below them. Those opinions in the cases become the law.
While all courts decide cases by reference precedent, some courts used a method I appreciate: they reference popular culture.
Here’s an example. In its recent decision in Novato Healthcare Center v. National Labor Relations Board, the D.C. Circuit began:
“In 1992, Vincent Gambini taught a mast class in cross-examination. Trial counsel for the National Labor Relations Board and the National Union of Healthcare Workers apparently paid attention.”
Vincent Gambini is the character played by Joe Pesci in one of my favorite movies, My Cousin Vinny. If you’ve never seen My Cousin Vinny, see it. It’s great. New York attorney Vinny travels to the Deep South to defend his cousin who is mistakenly accused of a murder. Vinny’s personality and unusual courtroom demeanor make him a fish out of water in the small Southern town, but ultimately successfully defends his cousin and helps bring the real murderer to justice. It’s also hilarious.
In the movie, Vinny’s questioning of a witness’s timeline showed that it did not match up with the time it took for him to cook his morning grits and eggs. In the real-life case, a lawyer for the NLRB questioned whether the Novato supervisor’s timeline matched up with the various tasks she completed. In real life, as in the film, the Court found that the timeline didn’t make sense.
“And here is where the lesson Vinny Gambini taught us comes into play,” wrote Chief Judge Merrick Garland “.…By the end of the cross, it was clear that [the witness] could not have cooked his breakfast of eggs and grits in just five minutes… So too, here…The problem with [the Novato supervisor’s] timeline is the sheer number of tasks [she] claimed to have completed…in just 5 to 10 minutes.” Ultimately, the Court did not find the supervisor’s testimony credible.
If you’ve never read a judicial opinion, start with this one. Give it a try by clicking this link. It’s fun. I promise.
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