In the baseball game of the law, judges have been famously compared to umpires: impartial observers who apply a set of pre-existing rules onto a specific circumstance. But every so often a judge comes along that’s less an umpire than a second-string player, watching from the sidelines but occasionally taking an opportunity to change the game.
Laughing at the Gods profiles eight of these judges throughout the past three centuries that have made their mark on the law. Audacious, inventive, exacting, and often eccentric, although these exemplars may not have always gotten it “right,” they oblige us to rethink what it means to be a judge. Which one would you be most like? Take this quiz and find out.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
a) Discuss politics with friends
b) Write nonfiction
c) Read up on your philosophy
d) Go hiking in the countryside
How would you describe your family?
a) Upper class, but a little unconventional
b) Blue collar workers
c) New England WASPs
d) Middle class
e) Urban professionals
What is your writing style?
a) Terse and witty
b) Simple and straightforward
c) Florid and philosophical
d) Colorful and colloquial
e) Intense and emotional
What most closely describes your ideas about the purpose of a judge?
a) To vindicate old laws from misrepresentation
b) To determine the unconstitutional
c) To uphold legislation and give it cohesion
d) To make sure justice is delivered
e) To represent the underserved
Why might you make an enemy?
a) For being misunderstood
b) In a battle for someone’s affections
c) For going against an agreement
d) For insulting someone
e) For being inattentive
What would you do if offered a job with more clout, but less security?
a) Reject it – stability is crucial
b) Reject it – clout isn’t that important to me
c) Accept it
d) Accept it, and ask for a promotion soon after
e) Ask to speak with your significant other first
How do you feel about wigs?
a) Love ‘em
b) Not for me
c) I prefer facial hair
d) Every now and then
Pick a statement, any statement:
a) “Unanimity never could have happened if we did not among ourselves communicate our sentiments with great freedom”
b) “We must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding”
c) “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”
d) “There is always an option – in my philosophy – by which justice can be done.”
e) “We can do what we can with what we have.”
a) Lord Mansfield (1705-1793)
Serving as Britain’s Lord Chief Justice for 32 years, Lord Mansfield is beloved for his good sense as well as his silver tongue. A childhood friend of Alexander Pope (who wrote “Ode to Venus” about him). Mansfield thought the common law was something to be admired, not tolerated or finessed. Although his detractors disliked his Scottish roots and his Jacobite family’s political views, he is often credited with constructing the modern foundations of the common law.
b) John Marshall (1755-1835)
A rags-to-riches story, John Marshall rose from a humble background to become one of the most seminal judges in American history. Though a resolute patriot interested in politics, he declined urging to run for the House of Representatives, returning to his law practice and ultimately becoming the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. He famously expanded the role of the Supreme Court, determining in Marbury v. Madison that the court held the authority to declare things unconstitutional. He was also known for his intensity as a lover and his congeniality as a host; he would often order wine saying, “our jurisdiction is so vast that it might be raining somewhere.”
c) Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Born to a blue-blooded Boston family, Oliver Wendell Holmes played as a child with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before heading to law school at Harvard, where he later taught philosophy. It wasn’t until he was 61 that he joined the Supreme Court, but once there he went on to become the oldest justice in history. Eloquent and unpredictable, Holmes defied easy pigeonholing; he was influenced by social Darwinism, and thought the law was nothing more or less than a product of human will. Although he had several controversial decisions, he is one of the most-cited legal scholars of the 20th century.
d) Tom Denning (1899-1999)
Famed for his bold decisions, Tom Denning firmly believed in the power of the law to deliver justice in individual cases. Working his way up from barrister to serve as Master of the Rolls, Britain’s second most senior judge, Denning often bypassed legal precedents if he felt they got in the way of the moral good. Swift and decisive in his decisions, he was ultimately embroiled in a controversy over the Birmingham Six that led to his retirement. But he is remembered for his eye-brow raising positions that endeared him to many an underdog.
e) Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993)
The first African-American justice to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall is known for being a great judge as well as a great lawyer. Growing up in Baltimore, attending a segregated school, he would often be sent for punishment to the school basement to memorize sections of the Constitution; he knew it by heart when he left school, a knowledge that would come in handy later on! Marshall famously represented the plaintiff, Oliver Brown, in Brown vs. Board of Education and helped overturn segregation. As a judge, Marshall walked a thin line between cultivating respect for legal precedent and satisfying the need for change to deliver justice.