Justice Roberts’ Gritty Detective Drama

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts let loose his inner-Raymond Chandler.

It’s not often that members of the world’s most powerful judicial tribunal have fun with their opinion-writing, but now, following in the great tradition of hard-boiled crime writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald comes … U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts? Yup.

In Pennsylvania v. Dunlap, a mundane drug case, Justice Roberts, dissenting from a denial of cert review, explored his inner Joe Friday. Here’s how his dissent started out:

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.

Roberts proceeded, in a much more traditional fashion, to disagree with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest the defendant.

Because it’s the only case we know of where a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a conservative one at that, had fun in an opinion, this opinion joins the Strange Judicial Opinions Hall of Fame.

Pennsylvania v. Dunlap, 129 S. Ct. 448, 448 (2008). Thanks to Joel Dipippa.

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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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