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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

(On the lighter side...) Diagram this!

What is the worst sentence in the history of American judicial opinions?  I’m not talking about a sentence that you find substantively repugnant, or offensive, or even silly.  Rather, I’m looking for sentences that are simply painful to read as matter of style or grammar.  Bonus points if they are found in opinions that are routinely part of the law school curriculum.  Two nominees can be found below.

The first comes from the Supreme Court’s 1851 opinion in Hotchkiss v. Greenwood, which I teach every year as part of the standard patent law canon on nonobviousness.  (Hotchkiss elucidates the principle that to be patentable, an invention must display a level of ingenuity and skill beyond that expected of an ordinary practitioner in the art.)  The case -- involving an improvement to a doorknob -- itself is rather unremarkable, but it does contain this spectacularly unwieldy sentence in Justice Nelson’s majority opinion:

The court refused to give the instruction, and charged the jury that, if knobs of the same form and for the same purposes as that claimed by the patentees, made of metal or other material, had been before known and used; and if the spindle and shank, in the form used by them, had been before known and used, and had been attached to the metallic knob by means of a cavity in the form of dovetail and infusion of melted metal, the same as the mode claimed by the patentees, in the attachment of the shank and spindle to their knob; and the knob of clay was simply the substitution of one material for another, the spindle and shank being the same as before in common use, and also the mode of connecting them by dovetail to the knob the same as before in common use, and no more ingenuity or skill required to construct the knob in this way than that possessed by an ordinary mechanic acquainted with the business, the patent was invalid, and the plaintiffs were not entitled to a verdict.

185 words, 14 commas, and two semicolons!  Even adjusting for mid-nineteenth century styles, that’s a mouthful.  But it pales in comparison to this gem from the Supreme Court’s decision in Cooley v. Board of Wardens (also from 1851), a classic case on the state exercise of police power:

This would be to affirm that the nature of the power is in any case, something different from the nature of the subject to which, in such case, the power extends, and that the nature of the power necessarily demands, in all cases, exclusive legislation by Congress, while the nature of one of the subjects of that power, not only does not require such exclusive legislation, but may be best provided for by many different systems enacted by the states, in conformity with the circumstances of the ports within their limits.

Shorter than the Hotchkiss sentence by more than half, but what havoc it wreaks with its 91 words!  

So what other cases am I missing, Prawfs readers?  Add them in the comments.  And feel free to suggest nominees for the most elegant sentences in American judicial history as well.


Posted by Jordan Singer on February 18, 2014 at 02:03 PM | Permalink


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I suspect that Judge Selya wins this "contest" by a mile.

Posted by: andy | Feb 18, 2014 3:17:06 PM

From the famous larceny case Topolewski v. State, 109 N.W. 1037, 1040 (Wis. 1906), this is the “issue presented.” It is in Dressler's Criminal Law text.

"So in the circumstances characterizing the taking of the barrels of meat from the loading platform the case comes down to this: If a person procures another to arrange with a third person for the latter to consummate, as he supposes, larceny of the goods of such person and such third person in the course of negotiations so sanctioned by such person suggests the plan to be followed, which is agreed upon between the two, each to be an actor in the matter, and subsequently that is sanctioned secretly by such person, the purpose on the part of the latter being to entrap and bring to justice one thought to be disposed to commit the offense of larceny, and such person carries out a part of such plan necessary to its consummation assigned to such other in the agreement aforesaid, such third person not knowing that such person is advised of the impending offense, and at the finality causes one of its employés, to, tacitly at least, consent to the taking of the goods, not knowing of the real nature of the transaction, is such third person guilty of the crime of larceny, or does the conduct of such person take from the transaction the element of trespass or nonconsent essential to such crime?"

Posted by: Andrew Ferguson | Feb 19, 2014 10:57:07 AM

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