Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Obi-Wan Stevens vs. Darth Rehnquist

cartoon of judges fighting with light sabers

An anecdote is told in which Chief Justice Rehnquist belittles an attorney during oral argument and Justice Stevens kindly helps the attorney out. Recently a law professor checked the transcript of the oral argument and learned that things were not exactly as the anecdote portrays.

To explain the popularity of the inaccurate story, he engages in a fantasy:

Suppose that when George Lucas created Star Wars he had done things differently with Obi-Wan Kenobi (the leading character on the side of good) and Darth Vader (his evil counterpart). Suppose that although Kenobi and Vader were rivals, they agreed most of the time – say, 63.6% of it. And when they did disagree, they did it civilly and in print, or discreetly behind closed doors. Moreover, both Kenobi and Vader were fun and fine human beings, liked and respected by their minions and peers. And they wore matching black robes. Not surprisingly, conflicts between two such powerful public figures over weighty and controversial topics were widely followed and debated. Yet because those clashes were between two such able, reasonable, peace-loving characters (surrounded by others of the same sort), they did not descend into saber-duels and civil war.
Ross Davies, Obi-Wan Stevens vs. Darth Rehnquist, 13 Green Bag 2d 263, 267-68 (2010), available at (footnotes omitted).

Davies speculates (reasonably) that this conflict might not have been a Hollywood blockbuster. The anecdote distorts the real incident to heighten the drama.

He remarks:
My impression, based mostly on second- and third-hand information, is that Obi-Wan Stevens is an admirable person and a valuable public servant, and that Darth Rehnquist was too. We should be grateful that we live in a world where a little fabrication is necessary to tell a story in which a good Justice fences with an evil one on our Supreme Court. Not because we lack Kenobi-caliber Justices, but, rather, because there seem to be no Vader-caliber villains on the Court for them to resist.
Id. at 268-69.

Happy Star Wars Day! May the Fourth be with you!

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