Splitting Hairs

In my Bushrod Washington research, I’ve come across a vulgar letter from a federal judge who served two hundred years ago. Sounds like a blog post.

Richard Peters was a distinguished Federal District Judge who often sat with Justice Washington on circuit. Peters wrote wonderfully charming letters, and the one that I’m going to quote described a case that the Judge was recounting to the Justice. Peters called this the case of “Splitting Hairs.”

The Complainant (so legally and corporeally) a mariner–declining now to proceed in rem–cited the owners of the Jefferson Indiaman, to show cause why process should not issue, for 5 months wages.

Defense: The Mariner was disabled from duty, during the whole period for which wages are claimed –by the venereal Disease. Proof–very minute and in detail–much inflated. No dispute about what was contracted . . .

Lawyer for Complainant. It is impossible for me to rebut this charge, not having had experience in such cases; and it may be doubtful whether your Honor has had competent knowledge to decide the degree of disability . . . But we cannot enter into the subject alleged to have produced the disability, by proof of capacity, or not . . .

The Court: I must split the difference and allow one half. It is a case which repels much nicety of examination and one in which I cannot split hairs.

Lawyer for Complainant: I am fine, Sir, you know that I never make a practice of splitting hairs.

The Court: I am glad you are warned by your client’s misfortune. The whole of this controversy–thus protracted–has been occasioned by his fondness for the splitting of hairs.

And so on.

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