Lawyers are not a funny bunch. And the judicial opinions authored by the lawyers who wear black robes tend to be especially devoid of humor. A couple of months ago, Supreme Court reporter Dahlia Lithwick wrote a Slate article asking, “Is John Roberts the funniest Supreme Court justice ever?”
Lithwick answered that question in the affirmative, Roberts having staked claim to that title by authoring an opinion holding that companies, such as AT&T, are not entitled to “personal privacy” protections and concluding the opinion with the quip, “We trust AT&T will not take [our decision] personally.” That’s the type of knee slapper that entitles a Supreme Court justice to lay claim to the mantle of being the funniest Supreme Court justice ever.
The fact that Roberts’ mildy funny throwaway line was remarkable enough to merit a whole article on it shows just how little levity there is in the law.
Lawyers fritter away most of their hours reading things like this:
“For purposes of Paragraph (3), an organization described in Paragraph (2) shall be deemed to include an organization described in Section 501(c) (4), (5), or (6) which would be described in Paragraph (2) if it were an organization described in Section 509(a)(3).”
That’s the infamous Section 529(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. According to Jennifer Schuessler, writing in The New York Times Book Review, the obscurantism of this passage inspired the late novelist David Foster Wallace to write his just-published novel The Pale King. With reading matter like that, it’s no wonder DFW killed himself. (Sorry — too soon?).
At any rate, all of this is merely prefatory explanation for the fact that when you come across a legal opinion that actually is genuinely humorous, it’s something worth sharing.
So I share with you Montana Worker Compensation Judge Jeremiah Shea’s opinion in Brock Hopkins v. Uninsured Employer’s Fund. The Hopkins case concerned an employee of Great Bear Adventures who smoked marijuana early in the day, prior to being mauled by a bear. Under Montana Worker’s Compensation law, Judge Hopkins had to address, the question of whether the marijuana smoking was the “major” cause of Hopkins’ injuries.
Judge Shea ruled that Hopkins’ marijuana consumption did not relieve Great Bear Adventures of liability for the workplace accident. Judge Shea reasoned thusly (even working in a reference to the 2004 movie Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, I am told):
“Although Hopkins admitted to smoking marijuana before arriving at work, I cannot conclude based on the evidence that the major contributing cause of the grizzly bear attack was anything other than the grizzly. It is not as if this attack occurred when Hopkins inexplicably wandered into the grizzly pen while searching for the nearest White Castle. When a grizzly bear is sighted on a trail in Glacier National Park, the trail is closed to all hikers, not just the hikers who may have recently smoked marijuana. When it comes to attacking humans, grizzlies are equal-opportunity maulers, attacking without regard to race, creed, ethnicity, or marijuana use. Hopkins’s use of marijuana to kick off a day of working with grizzly bears was ill-advised to say the least, and mind-bogglingly stupid to say the most. However, I have been presented with no evidence by which I can conclude that Hopkins’s marijuana use was the major contributing cause of the grizzly bear attack.”
So there you have it, the funniest judicial opinion ever. Weep for us, all ye non-lawyers. Weep for us.
*Funniness is determined by standards generally prevailing within the legal industry at the time of authorship. Not valid in all 50 states. Void where prohibited. No purchase necessary. The Hopkins case was written by a trained Administrative Law Judge. You should not attempt legal humor without the supervision of a trained professional.
**Thank you to my very able (and funny) colleague, Patrick Banfield, for bringing the Brock case to my attention. Patrick is very high-brow and has a subscription to Harper’s, which featured the Brock case in its Index feature this month.