Pennsylvania judge writes some legal decisions in verse

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- J. Michael Eakin brings new meaning to the concept of poetic justice.

Eakin, a judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court and a candidate for election to the state's highest court, has sometimes turned to rhyming verse instead of the stale legalese common in courtrooms.

"The law itself isn't dull, it's fascinatingly intricate," said Eakin. "Maybe it's better said that judges and judicial writing are dull. It can really be dry toast."

So when Eakin approached the case of Limerick Auto Body Inc. vs. Limerick Collision Center -- two rival auto repair companies feuding over their similar names in the southeastern community of Limerick -- he couldn't resist having fun with his concurring opinion.

"'Limerick Auto' and 'Limerick Collision'

Are so close one may clearly envision,

That the two were the same,

So a limerick I frame,

And join in my colleagues' decision," he wrote.

Eakin, who recalls admiring one rhymed opinion he read in law school, said his embrace of verse started in 1999 with a case involving a dispute over what a divorcing couple knew before they signed a prenuptial agreement.

A law clerk asked him about the case and his answer came out accidentally in rhyme. He realized he was onto something.

"That case sort of lent itself to it," he said. "I took it home and worked on it on the couch."

The result wasn't exactly Homeric, but it did get to the issues of the appeal concisely:

"A deal is a deal, if fairly undertaken," Eakin wrote, "and we find disclosure was fair and unshaken."

'My client felt demeaned'

The opinion -- one of four judicial determinations he has penned in verse -- got a warm reception from the losing attorney in the case but a cold one from the winner.

"I thought my client felt demeaned," said lawyer Randy Rabenold, who judged the poetry worthy of about a B-minus in an 11th-grade English class. "He trivialized a matter of significant importance."

In another case, a woman named Delores Liddle filed a lawsuit against breeder Denise Scholze after investing $48,000 in two emus named Savannah and Nicholas. Neither bird would produce chicks.

The opinion concluded:

"The learned trial court, in well reasoned words,

Held Liddle's case was flightless as the birds,

And her appeal in turn we now must find

As barren as the breeders here maligned."

Eakin, a Republican who is running against Democratic Judge Kate Ford Elliott for a seat on Pennsylvania's elected Supreme Court, said disputes over emus and the like tend to make better candidates for verse than more serious cases.

"You wouldn't want a murder case in rhyme," he said.

For her part, opposing candidate Elliott was uncomfortable commenting on another candidate's writing style. "I can tell you I probably would not personally handle the decisions in that way," she said.

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