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The VLW High Five: 5 Great Legal Quotations

From Shakespeare to Supreme Court justices to Johnnie Cochran, quotations about the law, lawyers and even specific cases are part of our daily vernacular. It was a challenge narrowing the list down to just five great quotations (apologies to Mark Twain, who had several great law-related comments including, “A good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer knows the judge”).

1. A little history

Remember Gouverneur Morris? If not, you likely remember a little something he wrote: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Born in New York, Morris was a staunch abolitionist and Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he gave more speeches than any other participant (173).

2. Nope, too small  

The right turn of phrase can make all the difference. Take “If it doesn’t fit, then you must acquit.” The impact of Johnnie Cochran’s eight words cannot be measured — 18 years after O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, most Americans can still name the lawyer who uttered them and in what courtroom during which trial. Not a bad way to rebut the prosecution’s evidence.

3. Thanks, I guess  

In 1591, William Shakespeare offered the legal profession a back-handed compliment that has endured over the centuries. Specifically, Dick the Butcher, a rebel in Henry VI, Part II, suggests “First thing we do: Let’s kill all the lawyers!”
Let’s be honest — we’ve all had friends or a family member throw this one at us at one time or another. Don’t be insulted: some historians have proffered the theory that Shakespeare intended the line as a compliment. Dick made his suggestion to Jack Cade, a rebel who was stirring civil unrest during the War of the Roses — the idea being that it would take the elimination of the entire system of justice for Cade to end up on the throne.

4. This may end badly

Ever considered representing yourself? Hopefully not or you might end up fulfilling the proverb, “He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” While the judicial system may afford greater leeway to pro se litigants, not so much for lawyers taking on their own case.

5. Oh, I see it now  

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous reference to pornography is a classic. In the 1964 decision Jacobellis v. Ohio, Stewart attempted to draw a line at which obscenity lost First Amendment protection. He concluded in a concurring opinion in the case: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hard-core pornography’]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,” he wrote. “But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

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