April Fools!

–From Brian Abramson, Florida International University College of Law, Date of event: April 2003

The date was April 1st, 2003. The class was Civil Procedure, taught by Professor Foley. Despite her general Southern congeniality and wry sense of humor, Professor Foley did not tolerate students coming unprepared to class. While students were allowed to “pass” by leaving a note on the professor’s podium, being caught unprepared without having taken a pass meant an automatic drop to the next lower letter grade.

I was one of those students who volunteered frequently enough that I almost never got called on cold, but on this day I did. Professor Foley called my name and asked me stand up, as she always asks students presenting cases to do. I was expecting her to begin asking me for the facts of the next case, but once I was on my feet she said, “Mr. Abramson, please explain the meaning of the term ‘nemo turpitudendum suam allegans auditur.’”

I was completely stunned. The phrase meant absolutely nothing to me. I did not recall having ever heard or seen it before, so I stalled, asking for a moment to check my notes. The assignment for today’s class had contained an unusually large amount of non-case materials, but Professor Foley generally lectured on such materials instead of having a student present them. As I scrolled through my briefs, I asked if this was in a case.

“No,” the professor replied. “It was in the reading. You did prepare some notes on the materials for today’s class, didn’t you?”

At this point, I was absolutely mortified, certain that I had carelessly overlooked something of vital importance in the reading. I was frantically flipping through the textbook, looking for any long string of italics that would signal the presence of such a phrase.

“Yes ma’am… I just can’t find it in my notes.”

Seeming exasperated, the professor said, “Well, Mr. Abramson, sound it out. What do you think it means?” She neatly wrote the string of words on the board, and then underlined each word:

I froze for a second before I began trying to sort out the possible meaning of this strange phrase.

Since we were in the middle of a chapter dealing with juries, I finally stammered out a guess, “It means that you can’t allege something that will cause turpitude when the jury hears it?”

“Mr. Abramson, I’m very disappointed to see you so unprepared for class.” My classmates recall that at this point, my body was shaking, my face was turning red as a beet, and I looked generally dismayed.

Then, still shaking her head, Professor Foley planted her hands on her hips, let out a disappointed sigh, and said “Mr. Abramson … April Fools.”

It turned out that a committee of my classmates had approached professor Foley earlier in the week and set up the entire thing, even going so far as to find an obscure Latin legal term – one which I will for the rest of my life remember means that under the old common law of England you could not require members of a jury to testify against themselves.

I tried to get her back the next year by mocking up a CNN news report of a fake case in which the Seventh Circuit ruled that personal jurisdiction could reach anyone with Internet service. I put the mock-up in her box and enlisted three other profs to stop by her office that day to express outrage at the opinion. But she didn’t bite. She just thought CNN got the facts wrong.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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