This Judicial Humor Resulted in Censure

The Kansas Supreme Court publicly censured a rhyming judge in a 1975 case for a tasteless piece of doggerel in which he publicly humiliated a woman arrested for prostitution. His poetic order was deemed to be in violation of the judicial ethical canon that “[a] judge should be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom he deals in his official capacity.”

We won’t  perpetuate the misdeed by setting forth the offending rhyme here. Suffice it to say the judge repeatedly called the young woman a “whore” (in addition to showing bad judgment, he should be chastised for being a lousy poet; that’s what he came up with to rhyme with “1974” — the year of defendant’s arrest).

The most interesting aspect of the case was the Kansas Supreme Court’s commentary on judicial humor. In defense to the disciplinary proceeding, the censured jurist cited to several poetic judicial opinions and argued he should not be censured for following in this grand judicial tradition. The court observed:

Judges have long been enjoined from the use of humor at the expense of the litigants before them for reasons which should be apparent. Under the heading of “Ancient Precedents” in the canons of judicial ethics adopted in 1924 by the American Bar Association this appears:

“Judges ought to be more learned than witty; more reverend than plausible; and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue ….”

“Patience and gravity of hearing is an essential part of justice; and an over speaking judge is no well-tuned cymbal ….” — Bacon’s Essay “of Judicature.” (198 Kan. xi.)

In 1967 a long time member of the supreme court of Arkansas in advising new judges on opinion writing had more to say on the subject. We quote:

“. . . Judicial humor is neither judicial nor humorous. A lawsuit is a serious matter to those concerned in it. For a judge to take advantage of his criticism-insulated, retaliation-proof position to display his wit is contemptible, like hitting a man when he’s down.” (Smith, A Primer of Opinion Writing, For Four New Judges, 21 Ark. L. Rev. 197, 210.)

Judges simply should not ‘wisecrack’ at the expense of anyone connected with a judicial proceeding who is not in a position to reply. … Nor should a judge do anything to exalt himself above anyone appearing as a litigant before him. Because of his unusual role a judge should be objective in his task and mindful that the damaging effect of his improprieties may be out of proportion to their actual seriousness. He is expected to act in a manner inspiring confidence that even-handed treatment is afforded to everyone coming into contact with the judicial system.

In re Rome, 542 P.2d 676, 685 (Kan. 1975). Thanks to Lihwei Lin.

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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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