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The resident humorist on the Court of Appeals

Glenn T. Harrell jr.

(Photo illustration: Benjamin Meredith)

Since graduating from law school, I’ve made a habit of checking the Court of Appeals website every morning to see if there are any new opinions. It’s a great way for me to stay up-to-date on the law. I generally only stop to read the opinions that are related to my practice, but I have one exception.

If I see that an opinion was authored by Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. —or, even better, that he wrote a dissenting opinion — I know I am reading it regardless of the subject matter.

The reason is simple: In addition to writing well-reasoned opinions, Harrell is really funny.

Over the years, Harrell has injected into his opinions a great collection of humorous quips and pop culture references, which often serve different purposes. Humor is an effective tool that, when used properly, can engage the reader and add a new perspective to a complicated subject.

I recently had the pleasure of attending an appellate practice CLE taught by Harrell and Court of Special Appeals Judge Robert A. Zarnoch. At the end of the seminar, I asked Harrell to name his favorite humorous opinion and wondered if he had a zinger or two in store for us in any of his upcoming decisions. He kindly named his favorite and told me to look out for an opinion coming out soon.

Fast forward to Monday, I was delighted to see the judge was true to his word. Writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals, in a case involving a fistfight between two high school students, Harrell began In re: Tyrell A. as follows: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”

The two high schoolers, Harrell noted, had apparently broken the first rule of Fight Club when their “pre-fight publicity attracted an audience, causing a disturbance in scholastic activities.”

So, in honor of Harrell’s pending, mandatory retirement, I’d like to highlight some of his funnier opinions.

  1. Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia – In Coleman, the Court of Appeals declined to abrogate the doctrine of contributory negligence. In his dissenting opinion, before offering an excellent primer on the doctrine of comparative negligence for a “future majority” of the Court, Harrell issued this zinger, which he told me, is his personal favorite:

    Paleontologists and geologists inform us that Earth’s Cretaceous period (including in what is present day Maryland) ended approximately 65 million years ago with an asteroid striking Earth (the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event), wiping-out, in a relatively short period of geologic time, most plant and animal species, including dinosaurs. As to the last premise, they are wrong. A dinosaur roams yet the landscape of Maryland (and Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina and the District of Columbia), feeding on the claims of persons injured by the negligence of another, but who contributed proximately in some way to the occasion of his or her injuries, however slight their culpability. The name of that dinosaur is the doctrine of contributory negligence. With the force of a modern asteroid strike, this Court should render, in the present case, this dinosaur extinct. It chooses not to do so. Accordingly, I dissent.

  2. Sherwood Brands, Inc. v. Great Am. Ins. Co. – Sometimes, you have to look a little harder for the humor, like in footnote 13 of this opinion, where Harrell gave the Bluebook “all due respect.” Any lawyer who spent long nights in law school correcting citations in journal articles and comments will appreciate this one.
  3. Clancy v. King – In the Clancy case, after spending a considerable amount of space explaining the intricacies of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, Harrell illustrated that concept by quoting from a show about nothing: “Seinfeld.” Using a scene where Jerry attempted to return a jacket “out of spite,” Harrell explained how one can breach the duty to act in good faith. (This is my personal favorite.)
  4. Smith v. State – Harrell’s affinity for well-timed pop culture references did not end with Seinfeld. In Smith v. State, a case where officers executing a search warrant discovered occupants of a dwelling “shrouded in a haze of marijuana smoke,” Harrell noted that it was reminiscent of a scene from, you guessed it, Cheech & Chong. He even provided a helpful footnote explaining Cheech & Chong to the uninitiated.
  5. Tshiani v. Tshiani – Highlighted by the The Daily Record’s own Danny Jacobs, this opinion’s beginning speaks for itself:

    A character portrayed by the actress Julia Roberts observed, “Happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat.” If that be so, the live goat included as part of the dowry at a traditional marriage ceremony on 23 December 1993 in Kinshasa, Zaire, marking Marie-Louise Ntumba’s union with Noel Tshiani, was no Vivaldi.

    This opener came with three footnotes, which explained that the violin quote was from Julia Roberts’s character Anna Scott in “Notting Hill”; observing that “Zaire” is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and citing Vivaldi as “one of the most accomplished violinists in world history.”

In a 2008 interview with the Daily Record, Harrell told the paper that he liked to get creative with his opinions when it was appropriate.

“When I was an undergraduate in college, I liked to write and just be creative and sometimes legal writing can get pretty difficult and dense,” he said, adding he likes to relate legal points to “something people think they can get their arms around rather than string-citing cases or block-quoting cases.”

Federal appellate Judge Alex Kozinski once wrote “humor is the pepper spray in the arsenal of persuasive literary ordnance: It is often surprising, disarming and, when delivered with precision, highly effective.” I think this perfectly encapsulates how I would describe Judge Harrell’s use of humor in his opinions.

I also think I speak for many lawyers in saying that his colorful opinions will be missed whenever he decides to hang up his robe, although I hope he continues to hear cases as a retired judge.*

If you have any Harrell favorites (or favorites from other judges), please post them in the comments or let me know on Twitter!

*As for up-and-coming judges who will be able to carry the torch, I have my eye on Court of Special Appeals Judge Douglas R. M. Nazarian who, if his opening salvo in Shirley v. Heckman is any indication, has some doozies in store for us. I would also be remiss if I didn’t give special recognition to retired appellate court judges Charles E. Moylan and Dale R. Cathell, who both have effectively used humor during their distinguished careers.

One comment

  1. kqalves@co.pg.md.us

    I have always found Judge Harrell’s opinions to be quite “Moylanesque.” I mentioned this similarity to Judge Harrell one day and he, true to his quick wit and at times self-depreciating humor, dissented. He indicated that he was not a compeer to Judge Moylan in terms of his opinion writing. I, however, respectfully dissent and state that I concur with the author in that Judge Harrell’s witty quips, references to pop culture, and quotes from great and not so great literature have firmly ensconced him in the annals of the Maryland Judiciary as one of our most prolific and,dare I say, loquacious jurists. I will miss the steady stream of his opinions but look forward to his opinions as a recalled judge, if he is so designated.

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