A Flibbertigibbety Recap of Supreme Court Rulings

Commemorating the term in verse, while learning something about both law and double dactyls.

He started it.

Photographer: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

With another Supreme Court term in the books, I offer, for the second year in a row, my take on the work of the justices -- in verse. When I did this for the first time last summer, I was inspired by the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s colorful description of an argument with which he disagreed as “jiggery pokery.”  That phrase is frequently used as the first line in a form of nonsense verse called the double dactyl, which has very precise rules for rhyme and meter. It’s easier to show what that means than to tell, so let me begin with an example. Here is a double-dactyl poem about the court’s latest (and surely not last) decision on affirmative action, in which the justices evaluated (again) the admissions plan used by the University of Texas:

UT admission rules
say race can count in a
holistic way.

Court says that process so
seems to pass muster (at
least for today).

See how it works?  The first line must be a six-syllable nonsense word (such as jiggery-pokery or higgledy-piggledy) and the six syllables are divided into a pair of dactyls. A dactyl is DAH-da-da, so a double dactyl is DAH-da-da, DAH-da-da.  The second line in most cases states the subject of the poem.  The fourth and eighth lines each comprise four syllables, in the meter above, and also must rhyme.  Finally, the sixth or seventh line must be a single double-dactyl word, and a real word, not nonsense (here, “ultracomplexified”).

Now that we know the rules, let’s take a look at United States v. Texas, an opinion, remember, that is only one sentence long:

New immigration rules
challenged by Texas and
others galore.

Lower court held the rules
unsatisfactory --
Judgment affirmed by a
vote of four-four.

By now the working of the double-dactyl format should be clear.  With that in mind, here are a few more.  First, on Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt:

Texas abortion law --
five-three majority
settled its fate.

Funny how statutes so
keep getting added in
state after state.

And on the unanimous decision overturning the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, on the ground, remember, that he performed no official acts in return for gifts received:

Virginia governor
took a few gifts, then made
phone calls for friends.

Court said that favors more
must first be shown, or no
prison impends.

As I mentioned last year, double dactyls have fascinated me since I was in high school.  At home I keep a notebook full of them.  I hold an annual competition in which my first-year law students write double dactyls about cases we have studied. The poems even play a prominent role in one of my novels

Writing double dactyls keeps the mind active and focused. And one can use them not only to make gentle fun but to explain matters of some difficulty.  Consider the following, about a last-day-of-term case that deserved more publicity, Voisine v. United States.  There, the justices interpreted the federal statute denying firearms to domestic abusers:

He who is violent to
those in his family
can’t get a gun.

Court says there needn’t be
intentionality --
Recklessness too means that
you can’t get one.

The court also announced at the end of the term that it would decline to hear an interesting and important case about religious freedom:

Washington pharmacists
claim some prescriptions would
burden belief.

Justices view the claim
unsympathetically --
five of the eight of them
say no relief.

Then of course there is a central mystery of the term -- why so many cases came from (and keep coming from) the same state:

Starting to wonder why
Texas had so many
cases this year.

Maybe the answer is
teleological --
combative statutes so
voters will cheer!

Finally, I close with a matter of what I suppose I should style professional concern:

Hundreds of law reviews
Telling the justices
how they should rule.

Chock full of jargon so
nobody reads them but
profs at law school.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Stephen L Carter at

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