Our Daily Bleg: Got Any Quotes From the Courtroom?

Our resident quote bleggar Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, is back with another request. If you have a bleg of your own — it needn’t have anything to do with quotations — send it along here.


Turning from comic strips to a weightier arena, I would welcome suggestions of notable quotations from United States Supreme Court decisions of recent years. Are there any worthy successors to the eloquent justices of the past, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Robert H. Jackson?


"The concept of free competition enforced by law is a grotesque contradiction in terms." - Ayn Rand


I bet there are some good Scalia ones. Unfortunately I can't think of any off hand. Very smart man with a wicked sense of humor.


"It is a grave error to suppose that a dictatorship rules a nation by means of strict, rigid laws which are obeyed and enforced with rigorous, military precision. Such a rule would be evil, but almost bearable; men could endure the harshest edicts, provided these edicts were known, specific and stable; it is not the known that breaks men's spirits, but the unpredictable. A dictatorship has to be capricious; it has to rule by means of the unexpected, the incomprehensible, the wantonly irrational; it has to deal not in death, but in sudden death; a state of chronic uncertainty is what men are psychologically unable to bear." - Ayn Rand


From Justice Stevens' dissenting opinion in Morse v. Frederick (127 S. Ct. 2618) - the "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" student expression case:

"Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible. That the Court believes such a silly message can be proscribed as advocacy underscores the novelty of its position, and suggests that the principle it articulates has no stopping point."

I loved this quote so much I had to find some way to cite it in my law school note on this case. Stevens is definitely my favorite Justice.


"Electronic Surveillance is the greatest leveler of human privacy ever known."
-Justice Douglas, dissent, US v. White, 401 U.S. 745 (1971)

Its one of my facebook quotes.


I'd suggest reading the transcript of the F-word hearings in the Supreme Court back in November...I don't remember the exact quote, but one of the justices, in reference to using the f-word, said something to the effect of "Do you take into consideration if the usage is particularly hilarious?"

D. H. Sandler

Some of my favorite quotes come from West Virgina State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943 about the flag salute in schools. Opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson:

"One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections"

"We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the Stateas those we deal with here, the prices is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."


"It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error."
Robert H. Jackson


Don't recall Ayn Rand being a justice on the Supreme Court in recent years. But she really has a knack for the quotable zinger, doesn't she?


"In holding that homosexuality cannot be singled out for disfavorable treatment, the Court contradicts a decision, unchallenged here, pronounced only 10 years ago, see Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), and places the prestige of this institution behind the proposition that opposition to homosexuality is as reprehensible as racial or religious bias."
- Scalia, J., dissenting in Romer v. Evans (1996)


Dear Derrick;

It is an even graver error to suppose that someone wants to be in a position of dominance. Generally, people don't and in my case, I have no choice til the work is done, research published and findings shared. Again you may quote me on this. The reference, however, is to a statement made by George Simmel, the sociologist.

copyright 2008, Robyn Goldstein


Dear Derrick;

Or I should say, I have no choice to the extent that I wish to adhere to proper procedures of scientific publication. I am no saint, nor am I going to be a victim. I believe and will adhere to the principle that credit should be paid where credit is due.

Sean Quinn

From the Roland Burris School of Law:
"Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached” - Antonin Scalia


"" -Clarence Thomas, all the time.


"[H]istory and tradition are the starting point but not in all cases the ending point of the substantive due process inquiry."
Justice Kennedy


"I know it when I see it."
Justice Stewart


"Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt." -- Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, & Souter in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). I personally believe this quote is attributable to Justice O'Connor; I have found her opinions to be fluid and beautifully well-written, though perhaps not necessarily instantly quotable.


JUSTICE STEVENS: Maybe I shouldn't ask this, but is there ever appropriate for the Commission to take into consideration at all the question whether the particular remark was really hilarious, very, very funny? Some of these things --
JUSTICE STEVENS: -- you can't help but laugh at. Is that -- is that a proper consideration, do you think?
GENERAL GARRE: Yes, insofar as the Commission takes into account whether it's shocking, titillating, pandering --
JUSTICE SCALIA: Oh, it's funny. I mean, bawdy jokes are okay if they are really good.

Case 07-582


Unfortunately, I can't name the source, but a very local attorney (in Berkshire County, MA) is reported to have once begged the jury "from the bowels of Christ" to find his client not guilty.

More commonly known is of course, "If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither are on your side, pound the table."

But still, I prefer the "bowels of Christ." It's got a certain emphasis that just can't be beat.


"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
Oliver Cromwell,1650.

Good advice for us all, bowels or otherwise.