The Sesquipedalian Septuagenarian

That’s the Boston Globe’s apt appellation for Judge Bruce Selya of the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Howard Bashman interviewed the Juvenalian jurist a few years ago; the Globe adds a well-deserved profile.

Selya has a knack for combining linguistic raras aves, snappy dismissals, and an academic’s detachment. Opiniones ipsa loquitur:

This is a ghost ship of an appeal. One hears the creak of the rigging, the groan of the timber, and the muted sound of voices through the fog, but there is nothing solid to be grasped. In the end the appeal, like the ghost ship, vanishes into the mist, leaving things exactly as they were. The tale follows.

Sanchez v. Puerto Rico Oil Co. (1994). As the Globe reports, “he opened a decision in a libel suit against the Boston Phoenix by writing: ‘The oenologist’s creed teaches that we should drink no wine before its time. Much the same principle applies to summary judgment; it is a deliciously helpful device if properly timed, but one that can leave a sour taste if brought to bear on an insufficiently fermented record.'”

You may be wondering at this point: Is Judge Selya simply bored? Is this merely vaporous bloviation? Is Judge Gertner right to be chary of his verbal purfle, and to insist that “We need to be as clear as possible”?

At the risk of being accused of praeteritio, I don’t think so. I, for one, see Selya as a Noah of language (or King Azaz the Unabridged), shepherding endangered words into a genre desperately in need of the verve, variety, and precision unusual language preserves. Perhaps one might argue that judicial language ought to be as dry and neutral as possible, to stylistically manifest the ideal of a “government of laws, not of men.” But the law is ultimately written by individual persons, and to the extent a jurist’s bons mots illustrate that point, they advance rather than obscure important truths about our system. As in Robert Lowell’s Epilogue, “why not say what happened?”

And as in one choice Selyan phrasing (recalling Jackson on finality): “We need go no further.”

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