Yesterday, a friend of mine who’s a law clerk happened to mention how much she enjoys reading Justice Roberts’ legal decisions. This enjoyment, she said, is irrespective of any agreement or disagreement with him on points of law — but rather has to do with his writing style, which she described as crisp, readable and frequently entertaining.
One favorite is his dissent in Pennsylvania v. Nathan Dunlap, which opens in a Sam Spade style:
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.
On the same topic of Legal Dissents that Make Enjoyable Reading, my friend also cited this one, given by Judge Bybee in the 9th Circuit case US v. Nevils:
It is said that the wife of English lexicographer Samuel Johnson returned home unexpectedly in the middle of the day, to find Dr. Johnson in the kitchen with the chambermaid. She exclaimed, “My dear Dr. Johnson, I am surprised.” To which he reputedly replied, “No my dear, you are amazed. We are surprised.”
Earl Nevils was surprised when two LA police officers with guns drawn ordered him not to move. But Nevils was not amazed in the least by the circumstances in which he found himself: he had a loaded, chambered semiautomatic Tec 9 on his lap and a loaded, chambered .40 caliber pistol by his leg. Nor was he astonished by the marijuana, ecstasy, cash and a cellphone on a table a foot away. Although the unoccupied apartment was not his, Nevils wasn’t the least bewildered at finding himself in Apartment #6–officers had found drugs and guns in the apartment just three weeks earlier and had arrested Nevils there for parole violation. According to one of the officers, Nevils first impulse was to “grab towards his lap” where the Tec 9 lay and “then he stopped and put his hands up.” He later exclaimed to an officer, “I don’t believe this s—. Those m———— left me sleeping and didn’t wake me.” The jury found him guilty of being a felon in possession.
The majority overturns his conviction because it finds the evidence insufficient to show that Nevils knowingly possessed the guns. It surmises that it is equally plausible that someone–anyone, actually, since the defense couldn’t finger any person in particular–set Nevils up by placing the guns on him while he was in a drunken stupor. Thus, the majority concludes, no reasonable juror–certainly not the twelve who did–could have found that Nevils knowingly possessed the guns. Like Mrs. Johnson, I am both amazed and disappointed. I respectfully dissent.