Quotes: ‘When the law is an ass…’

I love quotes. No, not lawyer jokes, but the one-liners or few lines of wisdom that appeal to my views about the law, or convey some universal truth about the law or lawyers (if such truths exist). I also write down quotes about human nature, politics and democracy.  For as long as it may last and/or I may find them, I am going to be sharing these quotes, explain the context and discuss why I like them. The quotes could come from anywhere, but I am partial to popular culture. Not because I am a simple guy – which I am – but because the quotes are often clear and to the point, and students can often relate. And the quote to kickstart it all is exemplary: ”When the law is an ass, someone has to kick it.”

The Good Wife story

When it comes to legal drama’s on television, ‘The Good Wife’ is as good as it gets. Main character Alica Florick (played by Juliana Marguilis) is a lawyer who was forced to rekindle her legal career after her husband, the State’s Attorney for Cook County, Illinois, resigned and was jailed after a sex- and corruption scandal. In episode 12 of season 4, Mrs. Florick is helping a colorful colleague – Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) – who is detained in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, but who needs to return to Downtown Chicago as soon as possible for a case of her own. Ms. Tascioni can’t make bail because there are no bond hearings in Skokie on the weekend, and she missed the last transport to Downtown where there are bond hearings on the weekend. Mrs. Florick is rebuffed by a Downtown Chicago judge, who can’t force the transfer, because the slightly erratic Ms. Tascioni must first undergo a psychological evaluation in Skokie. On the advice of her husband, Mrs. Florick makes it a constitutional question that must be heard by the Downtown  judge, making the transport necessary and overruling the psych evaluation. An argument develops around the lawfulness of Ms. Tascioni’s arrest. Was she arrested on premises on which the campus police of a university had jurisdiction?

The judge ultimately ruled against Ms. Tascioni after an entertaining exchange opposing counsel. However, the immediate consequence would be that she would be returned to Skokie for a bail hearing the next day. However, Ms. Tascioni could also go ’a few steps down the hall’ to bond court to make bail right there and then. With the creative argument of ’bureaucratic insanity’, Mrs. Florrick convinces the judge to break the law. When the State’s Attorney Office protests, he screams: ”When the law is an ass, someone has to kick it!”.

Quotes and Universal themes

This quote contains two universal themes in law. First, the judge’s statement is premised on the notion that the law can indeed be an ass, leading to absurd results. The sentiment is timeless and the phrase came to public attention through Charles Dickens’s ’Oliver Twist’ from 1838, but its origins go back even further. Second, the absurd result of the law’s application can sometimes require that the law is consciously side-stepped and violated. Sometimes it can even be the first piece of practice

While doing so is rather benign in this fictional case, contemplating violating international law is deadly serious in matters of war and human suffering. For example, unilateral humanitarian intervention is often touted as necessary, but is strictly speaking unlawful under international law. The application of law in real-life situations is full of dilemmas and never fully satisfactory. Law and justice are not necessarily synonymous. Justice – or a sane outcome – must sometimes by preceded by a violation of the law. That is not an abdication of law, but rather a confirmation of its nature and place in society.

Do you know any good quotes about (international) law? Let me know in the comments below, or through TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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  • […] recited in popular culture. The tagline on my site comes from a scene in ’The Good Wife’, and I wrote about the quote, that more or less contains the same sentiment again: ”When the law is an ass, […]

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