When people picture what goes on in the Supreme Court, they imagine austere justices arguing and deliberating on issues that will decide the fate of Law itself.
However, the Supreme Court, like any other court in the land, hears more than one case per day. This means that it does happen, however rarely, that the justices are forced to preside over bullshit. And since the justices are human beings just like us, they can't help but call it out when they see it ...
One of the most smartass rulings in Supreme Court history came about because of some spoiled tomatoes. In short, a tomato supplier named Joseph Bertman got sued by the U.S. government because the goods arrived spoiled. The court sided with Bertman because it wasn't his fault -- it was the shipping company's screwup.
Now, if you lose a court case and want to appeal, you have 60 days to file it. And if the government was going to appeal this case, Bertman was going to have to respond within that same deadline. So the government simply waited to file until right before closing time on the 60th day, so Bertman wouldn't have a chance to do his part.
Bertman fought the government's dickery all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice Hugo Black put Bertman's predicament into words we can all understand:
"I am aware of the argument that an able, alert, ever-diligent lawyer could have, had he tried hard enough, discovered that the Government had appealed -- even in the closing hours of the sixtieth day. I do not doubt that had Bertman's counsel been Superman, his X-ray eyes would have told him that a notice of appeal was being filed blocks away in the courthouse, or had he been a lawyer with no clients but Bertman he could have spent the sixtieth day hovering at the clerk's office to see whether the Government would file a notice of appeal. But Bertman's counsel (so far as the record shows) is not Superman, nor should the law expect him to be."
Despite Justice Black's eloquent argument, Bertman lost. Technically, Uncle Sam didn't break any laws, and unfortunately the courts are there to declare only what is illegal, not what is merely shitty. The lesson is apparently that the next time you're up against the government, maybe you should hire Superman as your lawyer.
The legal lunacy began when Casey Martin, a professional golfer, requested that the PGA allow him to play every round of an upcoming tournament riding a cart instead of walking from hole to hole. You see, Martin was born with a syndrome known as Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber, which besides sounding like two of the three worst attempts ever at cheating at Scrabble, also denied him full use of his right leg.
The PGA turned down Martin's request, pointing out not only that Martin would have an unfair advantage against his competition, but also that walking is a fundamental aspect of golf. Martin figured this was the same as any other workplace discriminating against somebody with a disability, and he sued. Somehow, the issue of whether wheels and a cushioned seat are appropriate golf equipment was deemed so important that it wound up before the Supreme Court ... where the justices found it to be a face-palmingly ridiculous waste of their time.
"We Justices must confront what is indeed an awesome responsibility. It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States ... to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution ... fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question."
Sarcastic commentary aside, Martin won his case. So if you ever feel like a round of mini-golf and the attendant tries to kick you out for driving your custom off-road golf cart on the course, you tell him the Supreme Freaking Court of the United States gave you permission.
In the town of Tecumseh, Oklahoma, parents and school officials finally had it up to here with all these damn drugs and these damn kids. They decided to use the tiniest excuse possible to subject the greatest number of schoolchildren to mandatory drug testing, and they settled on testing anyone who wanted to be in extracurricular activities. So from then on, all extracurriculars would require drug testing. All of them.
Lindsay Earls, who was a member of choir, the marching band, the Academic Team and the National Honor Society -- and would thus have been mandated to piss in a cup at least four times solely under suspicion of nerdity in the first degree -- filed a lawsuit on behalf of the students.
Earls cited the Constitution, in which the Fourth Amendment grants you privacy and requires that authorities have reasonable suspicion to search you. Lawyers for Pottawatomie County, where Tecumseh is located, countered that children on drugs pose a physical danger to themselves and others while performing any extracurricular activity. Even chess.
Since they were fighting the War on Drugs and this was the children we were talking about, the legal fires remained lit until the case was heard before the Supreme Court. Once it got there, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tried to speak for those few adults who hadn't lost their minds:
"The School District cites the dangers faced by members of the band, who must perform extremely precise routines with heavy equipment and instruments in close proximity to other students and by Future Farmers of America, who are required to individually control and restrain animals as large as 1500 pounds ... Notwithstanding nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh, the great majority of students the School District seeks to test in truth are engaged in activities that are not safety sensitive to an unusual degree."
Justice Ginsburg may have tried to be the voice of reason here, but Earls actually lost this case. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court found that the children don't need none of that highfalutin' privacy. Although most high schools in the country don't test students for drugs just for belonging to the math team, if you want to join it in the town of Tecumseh, you're going to have to piss in a cup, Junior -- or no Trig Olympics for you!
Have you ever been annoyed by those people coming up to you at the airport and trying to hand you religious material? The folks over at Los Angeles International Airport are right there with you, man. Hell, in 1983, the Board of Airport Commissioners at LAX even tried to pass a law banning the pamphlet people from hanging around anywhere near their airport.
They ran into one teensy problem, though. Let's see ... what was it? Oh, yeah! The First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That's the one that protects people's rights to say what they want, worship any way they want and express themselves however they want. It pretty much guarantees that religious groups don't get the crap harassed out of them when they peacefully try to save the souls of everyone waiting for the 5:15 to Houston.
But those ingenious bastards at LAX thought they had found a way around that pesky Constitution. In the resolution they passed, they expressly banned all First Amendment activities. Problem. Freaking. Solved.
And they didn't write it in vague legalese that they could somehow claim was misinterpreted. They expressly wrote that all First Amendment activities were forbidden in the terminal and could result in litigation. That cross around your neck that signals you're a Christian? Banned! Your Che Guevara T-shirt? Banned! Your "Free Mustache Rides" hat? You'd better believe that's banned!
Jews for Jesus was the first religious group to get kicked out under the new rule, and they filed a lawsuit. When the case got before the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor must have paused and wondered whether someone was punking her when she had to write the complaint brought before the court:
"The issue presented in this case is whether a resolution banning all 'First Amendment activities' at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) violates the First Amendment."
In the least-surprising turn of events in the history of the court, the justices unanimously found that yes, this resolution violates the First Amendment. It also likely went down as the first decision to ever have the word "Duurrrrr" scrawled in the margins.[subtitle]
When Curtis Lee Kyles was arrested in the murder of Dolores Dye, the prosecution had what must have seemed like a slam-dunk case. At Kyles' house, police found the murder weapon and the murdered woman's purse, and later, no fewer than four eyewitnesses would pick Kyles from a lineup.
Kyles was convicted, but his lawyers filed an appeal based on two things: 1) that the prosecution withheld some documents from the defense, and 2) that the four eyewitnesses all clearly saw his face but hadn't all agreed on his exact height and build. Why? One of them had seen Kyles only after he got into his getaway car.
The key that allowed this clusterfuck to reach the Supreme Court was the document-sharing issue (and even if this was an honest mistake, as prosecutors have always claimed, this was still a Class A screwup on their part). But that didn't make the thing about the witnesses anything other than bullshit, as Justice Antonin Scalia couldn't resist pointing out in his written opinion:
"The desperate implausibility of the theory that petitioner put before the jury must be kept firmly in mind. ... To assert that unhesitant and categorical identification by four witnesses who viewed the killer, close-up and with the sun high in the sky, would not eliminate reasonable doubt if it were based only on facial characteristics, and not on height and build, is quite simply absurd. Facial features are the primary means by which human beings recognize one another. That is why ... bank robbers wear stockings over their faces instead of floor-length capes over their shoulders; it is why the Lone Ranger wears a mask instead of a poncho; and it is why a criminal defense lawyer who seeks to destroy an identifying witness by asking 'You admit that you saw only the killer's face?' will be laughed out of the courtroom."
But he wasn't laughed out of the courtroom. Kyles was in fact granted a new trial, not based on the witness thing but that other issue about the prosecution failing to share information.
Kyles was actually tried three more times, with each trial ending in a hung jury, until the prosecutor called it quits and released him. But the guy shouldn't beat himself up too much. The justice system is getting another chance at Kyles, given that he was arrested in 2010. On suspicion of murder. Again. Doh.
Eddie would like to thank his sister, Marissa, and her law professor, Steve Vladeck, for their help in researching this article.
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For more courtroom shenanigans, check out 7 Ridiculous Cases Where Animals Were Put On Trial. Or find out about some fictional judges who didn't do their homework in The 5 Most Wildly Illegal Court Rulings in Movie History.
And stop by Linkstorm to see what happened when the Supreme Court tried to tell Andrew Jackson to stop shooting people.
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