Galactic Disputes: Judges Channel the Wisdom of Star Wars

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Making legal jargon understandable to the general masses is a big job. Some more creative judges think outside of the box to get their point across through pop culture references. With all of the hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens,  it should come as no surprise that Star Wars references are seeping into judicial opinions.

Arbitration Odyssey

Not so long ago in a courtroom not quite galaxies far away, Singaporean Judge Vinodh Coomaraswamy anonymised his 76-pages of  reasons for dismissing an application to reject a tribunal’s decision by inserting various names and locations from the popular franchise. Uncreatively titled AMZ v. AXX, the title of the arbitration award reveals little of the tale woven within.

Although the geographical specifics don’t entirely match up to the galactic level Star Wars universe, the judge set the dispute in the aptly named Alderaan, Cloud City, and Bespin—an immense gas giant located in a desolate sector of the Star Wars universe.

In lieu of using the names of parties to the dispute, the judge dubbed the finance manager as Beru and the oil trader as Owen, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle in the original Star Wars trilogy.

The judge even went as far as naming the vessel used by the plaintiff to ship crude oil to the defendant the “Tantive IV,” which die-hard Star Wars fans will immediately recognize as the ship Leia is captured in at the beginning of Episode IV.

This made the seventy-six-page culmination of an otherwise dry contract dispute much more interesting. A few of the judges highlights are below.

… it chartered and nominated a vessel, which I shall call the “Tantive IV”, to transport the Dar Blend from South Sudan to up to three safe ports including Alderaan and Cloud City…

…Owen proceeded to load the Dar Blend onto the Tantive IV at Port Sudan on 17 and 18 December 2010. However, Owen did not instruct the Tantive IV to sail directly from Port Sudan to Cloud City. Instead, he instructed the vessel to sail from Port Sudan to Alderaan and to remain in Alderaan awaiting further routing orders…

This is by no means the only time a judge has used Star Wars references to illustrate points in a court of law, nor by any means the most colorful.

A Little Green Man

In a case involving a racketeering and money laundering conviction stemming from “spas” that were allegedly fronts for prostitution, appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook of the 7th Circuit chided the prosecution over an inflated calculation of proceeds from the operation. Finding that operational costs shouldn’t be considered net proceeds, Judge Easterbrook cautioned that “Size matters not, Yoda tells us.”

Justice Cunningham of the Kentucky Supreme Court similarly channeled the wisdom of Jedi Master Yoda in his dissenting opinion on due process considerations and nonpayment of child support, opining:

Even Yoda, the diminutive Star Wars guru, recognized that sometimes in life we have to fish or cut bait. ‘Do or not do. There is no try.’ It is an admonition which fits the deadbeat parent when all of our solicitous pleadings and beseeching have led nowhere.

Jedi Mind Tricks

In one case, where a doctor was charged with enabling prescription drug abuse by allegedly writing hundreds of medically baseless prescriptions, the judge incorporated his knowledge of Star Wars into an order on objections to an expert’s testimony. The court took the defense to task over diversionary tactics, such as demanding a list of a prosecution witness’s published articles for the last decade and the witness’s compensation, as the “legal equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’”

This attempted diversion—the legal equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” see STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (Lucasfilm 1977)—is unavailing.

California Court of Appeals Justice Moore characterized one case in which the parties had conspired “in a despicable scheme” to hide assets during divorce and child support proceedings in terms of the dark side:

This case is somewhat akin to deciding a dispute between Darth Vader and the Borg, or if you prefer a classical metaphor, Scylla and Charybdis. There is no justice to be done here. The parties conspired in a despicable scheme to hide assets during marital dissolution and child support proceedings. The defendants retained those assets; the plaintiff sued to get them back. Both now rely on arguments relating to unclean hands, the sanctity of the judicial process, and public policy, all of which are laughable, considering the circumstances.

One  judge punctuated his commentary on an expert’s testimony in a tortious interference and non-compete case about the “ripple effect of negativity” that contributed to the damage claims with a Star Wars reference-heavy footnote:

I do not credit Mr. Fleming’s testimony, which is not adequately supported or explained and is, at best, highly exaggerated. Even in Star Wars, it took the destruction of a planet to create “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.” And it took no less a Jedi Knight than Obi–Wan Kenobi to sense it.

Disturbance in the Force

In another employment law dispute over unpaid overtime and meal benefits that had beaten a complex path through the judicial system, the judge described the nature of the procedural history as “similar to a Star Wars bar scene, the procedural history of this action is bizarre.”

With the exception of this select group of Force-savvy  jurists, perhaps it is best for you to leave Star Wars references to the judge. This is illustrated by the following exchange between a trial judge and lawyer in a case where the choice of police line-up participants was at issue.

Counsel: Other than the fact that they shared African American descent, these people were about the same as the denizens of the Mos Isleys [sic] Space Port in Star Wars.

Court: I am sorry. I don’t go to those movies so I have no idea what you are talking about.

Counsel: All right. This is like the British judge who, when there was a reference to the Rolling Stones, said, “the Rolling What,” Your Honor. All we were missing here were the Harlem Globetrotters and the Seven Dwarfs [sic].

Court: In other words, it was in the middle, not to either extreme. Counsel: I don’t think so.

Whether Star Wars references make the law more or less confusing remains to be seen.

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  • In my view, unless there’s a connection between Star Wars and the case, decisions like the ones discussed here are self-indulgent.