Fun With Puns

Written by John G. Browning


Let’s face it: Whether you’re a lawyer or a judge, chances are you deal with a lot of matters that are, well, boring. So it’s only natural for some of us to try to liven things up with a bit of humor when the opportunity presents itself. In 2008, Judge Berle M. Schiller, of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, was presiding over a premises liability case—probably just one of many that he’d ruled upon over the years. But this one was slightly different, since it involved a brawl at the bar of the Limerick Golf Club, and the club’s attempt to belatedly add the alleged assailant as a party defendant. With such facts, and a defendant named Limerick, Schiller couldn’t resist issuing his ruling in the form of a limerick:

With arguments hard to resist,
The movant correctly insists,
His joiner was tardy.
And so the third-party
Complaint is hereby dismissed.

Pretty clever, indeed. But Schiller is far from alone, particularly since some judges love to show off their pun skills when the opportunity presents itself. Back in 2009, long before Rudy Giuliani was holding awkward press conferences at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, his son Andrew sued Duke University over being kicked off the varsity golf team. In dismissing young Giuliani’s lawsuit in a May 19, 2009, memorandum opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Wallace Dixon let the golf puns fly fast and furious. He described how the plaintiff “tees up his case,” before concluding that Giuliani’s argument “slices far from the fairway.” An attempt by the plaintiff to change legal theories was derisively compared to “trying to change clubs after hitting the golf ball,” and Giuliani’s reliance on certain supposed contract evidence was dismissed as “a swing and a miss.” Another unsuccessful theory of recovery was described by Dixon as an attempted “mulligan,” though “this shot also lands in the drink.” The judge disposed of another contract theory by stating, “Plaintiff also shanks this claim,” characterized a promissory estoppel claim as “slow play,” and finally rejected plaintiff’s declaratory judgment claim with “a hole-in-one sentence: no valid contract means no declaratory judgment.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Dixon likes to play golf.

Sometimes the circumstances of the case are just too tempting, like the 1991 New York case of Stambovsky v. Ackley. The case involved the purchasers of a house suing the sellers for not disclosing that the home was supposedly haunted. Appellate Justice Israel Rubin observed that while “plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance,” he was nevertheless moved by “the spirit of equity” to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale, even if the basis for relief was “elusive if not ephemeral.” The opinion cautioned real estate attorneys to be careful to escrow funds “lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client,” and called an undisclosed premises condition “a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.” Rubin even worked in a reference to everything from Shakespearean ghosts to the movie Ghostbusters.

More recently, U.S. District Judge Jennifer A. Dorsey, of the U.S. District Court of the District of Nevada, showed that she’s got some serious pun chops when she was called upon to decide a proposed class-action suit against Red Robin, in which the restaurant chain was accused of serving pints of Stella Artois beer in chalice-type glasses that shortchanged patrons by two ounces. In a “legally sobering” February 12, 2021, opinion, Dorsey fermented her own brew of handcrafted language and poured it into an otherwise run-of-the-mill document. The judge remanded the case back to state court on jurisdictional grounds, calling the amount in controversy calculations by Red Robin “mostly foam,” and noting that the plaintiff’s remand motion “takes the fizz out of those numbers,” even though Red Robin “distills this number down further.” Dorsey accused the restaurant chain of trying to “tap into” sales figures that didn’t support its argument, and that its attempt to add in attorneys’ fees made for a “strange brew” that didn’t get Red Robin to the necessary “fill line.” In determining the exact dollar amount in controversy, Dorsey reasoned, “temperance must be exercised.” I don’t know about you, but when it comes to clever judicial wordplay, I’ll drink to that.

But you don’t have to be a judge to write something as buzzworthy as that opinion. When Twitter banned a fan page for President Joe Biden’s family pets (dogs Champ and Major and “First Cat” Winston) as an improper impersonation account, the lawyer behind @TheOvalPawffice struck back. Media lawyers at Clare Locke sent Twitter a pun-riddled response under the guise of a Labrador retriever named “Gipper.” “Gipper’s” letter stated “Doggone it . . . I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” and called out “Twitter’s ruff and re-pug-nant treatment.” It demanded that Twitter “call off the dogs” and lift the suspension, noting that @TheOvalPawffice has “created a lot of pawsitivity” by raising money for charity and helping shelter dogs and cats find “fur-ever homes.” “Gipper” confessed that while he wasn’t a licensed attorney, he might as well have a “juris dog-tor degree.”

Twitter lifted the account suspension shortly thereafter, demonstrating once again that some “pro bone-o” effort and a little humor can sometimes get you out of the doghouse. So the next time you’re having a dreary day, liven it up with a pun or two.TBJ


is a former justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. He is the immediate past chair of the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Section. The author of four books and numerous articles on social media and the law, Browning is a nationally recognized thought leader in technology and the law.

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