Supreme Court Justices Love Quoting Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, Study Finds
Supreme Court Justices aren't just a well-read bunch, they're a literary one, too. According to a 2015 study, cleverly titled “Literary Justice” [PDF], the current Justices have repeatedly referenced Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll in their speeches and writing, quoting each a total of 16 times. They’ve also quoted a range of other classic writers, from the Roman poet Ovid to classic 20th century authors like Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.
Perhaps more than any other profession, lawyers and the law figure prominently throughout the works of William Shakespeare. He drew frequent inspiration from the legal system, referencing lawyers in his writing, and incorporating legal jargon into his characters’ soliloquies. In that sense, it's not surprising that the Supreme Court would draw inspiration from the Bard.
But according to a recent article in The Economist, the sheer quantity and range of Shakespeare references by lawyers and judges around the world is jaw-dropping. They report that all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays "have been quoted by American courts in over 800 judicial opinions." That includes even ones you've never read (or maybe even heard of) like The Two Noble Kinsmen and Timon of Athens.
The Economist reports that in one case, British lawyers arguing a 2008 boundary dispute turned to Hamlet, calling the contested area “a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name.” In another, French lawyers discussing criminal liability announced, “I here proclaim was madness” (also from Hamlet). The term “Shakespearian,” meanwhile, has been used repeatedly to evoke a “rise-and-fall narrative.”
While Shakespeare may be one of the most popular reference points in the legal profession, Lewis Carroll also holds considerable sway, at least with today’s Supreme Court. Though the authors of “Literary Justice” don’t provide any theories as to why Shakespeare and Carroll have been cited the most, they do note that based on their results, the two authors are “likely to have significant longevity in the Supreme Court.”