Sometimes, opening sentences tell you exactly what you need to know about what’s to follow.  That’s certainly true of literature.  Consider the beginning of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (translation Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): “I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man.  An unattractive man.  I think my liver hurts.”  Genius, really.  And this notion is definitely true of opinions.  Take, as an example, Wal-mart Stores v. Dukes: “We are presented with one of the most expansive class actions ever.”  Justice Scalia, from the get go, made clear that the class was doomed.  I imagine that readers have other humdingers of beginnings, do tell.

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3 Responses

  1. Joey Fishkin says:

    This is not precisely what you’re asking for since (a) it’s many sentences long and (b) it starts in the second sentence of the opinion… but still, I think the opening sentences of Justice Jackson’s opinion in Morissette v. United States deserve a mention. When I started out as a law clerk my judge asked me to read this classic description of the facts of a case, and they made a strong impression:

    On a large tract of uninhabited and untilled land in a wooded and sparsely populated area of Michigan, the Government established a practice bombing range over which the Air Force dropped simulated bombs at ground targets…. Spent bomb casings were cleared from the targets and thrown into piles “so that they will be out of the way.” They were not stacked or piled in any order but were dumped in heaps, some of which had been accumulating for four years or upwards, were exposed to the weather and rusting away.

    From these sentences, it is pretty clear that Morissette’s conviction for stealing the casings is not going to be upheld.

  2. Danielle Citron says:

    Excellent one!

  3. SRC says:

    The most telling opening I remember is the concluding sentence of the opening paragraph of Benefiel v. Davis, 357 F.3d 655 (CA7 2004), an opinion by the late Judge Terrence Evans, a remarkable legal-writer:

    In 1988, Bill J. Benefiel was sentenced to death for murdering Delores Wells in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1987. His conviction for the murder, as well as for criminal confinement, rape, and criminal deviant conduct, and his death sentence have been upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court both on direct appeal, Benefiel v. Indiana, 578 N.E.2d 338 (Ind.1991), and on appeal from the denial of a postconviction motion, Benefiel v. Indiana, 716 N.E.2d 906 (Ind.1999). He is now before us appealing the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. We start with the facts, which curl the stomach and numb the mind.

    Indeed, they do. From there, things go downhill for Mr. Benefiel.