Shakespeare in Court: Justices Hold Mock Trial Based on Bard’s Tragedy

This is what Supreme Court judges do for fun.

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Jason Reed / REUTERS

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaking in Washington on April 4, 2008.

Three U.S. Supreme Court judges presided over a libel case between a tyrannical Roman general and the fictitious Latin Tribune newspaper for a mock trial based upon a William Shakespeare tragedy on Monday.

Coriolanus may be one of the Bard’s bleakest works, but the senior judges still managed to engineer a few laughs during the exercise. The play is currently being performed at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre and the judicial send-up is an annual tradition.

(MORE: Was Shakespeare a Humble Schoolmaster During His ‘Lost Years’?)

Prominent Washington lawyer Lisa Blatt, a partner at Arnold & Porter, argued on behalf of the British-style tabloid, while former U.S. Solicitor-General Seth P. Waxman represented the general’s estate. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and four appeals court judges were adjudicating.

The occasion was treated with appropriate frivolity; proceedings at Sidney Harman Hall were peppered with clever one-liners and allusions to current political hot potatoes. At one point Alito quipped, “it’s impossible to separate facts from fiction” as he read the paper, reports Reuters.

The story of Coriolanus is a pretty grim affair. After returning to Rome a war hero he begins campaigning for political office. However, his despotic tendencies soon bring him into conflict with the populace — he is opposed to farmers setting their own grain prices — and he compares democratic rule to allowing “crows to peck the eagles.” Coriolanus is eventually driven from the city but returns with reinforcements bent on revenge. However, his mother convinces him to renege, and he is slain by his new allies as a traitor.

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Dissecting the intricacies of such a morbid plot is naturally child’s play for the assembled Supreme Court bigwigs. Blatt at one point reminded judges that Coriolanus wanted to “skewer people with his lance.” However, the National Lance Association’s insistence “that lances don’t kill people, people kill people only strengthens our case,” she explained, drawing mirth from the audience, according to the Washingtonian.

The court eventually ruled in favor of the Fourth Estate by a 5-2 margin with Breyer — sporting his right arm in a sling after fracturing his shoulder in a bicycle accident — and Alito the dissenters. It seems that Coriolanus just can’t catch a break.

(PHOTOS: Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Histories)