Mock justice

From left: Supreme Court  Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and  Judge Merrick Garland. Photo by Kevin Allen
From left: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and
Judge Merrick Garland. Photo by Kevin Allen

The mock trial is a venerable tradition in this town. Only two weeks ago, Abbe David Lowell and Nathan Lewin, who, between them have represented the likes of John Lennon, Richard Nixon, Sens. John Edwards and Bob Menendez, squared off in a mock trial of Moses on the bima of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

In what was surely the most high-profile prosecution in Montgomery County history, Lewin convicted Moses of committing a sin at the rock. All was not lost for Lowell’s celebrity client. The Chadbourne & Parke litigator convinced the “jury” of congregants in the penalty phase that the erstwhile leader of the Jewish people should be permitted to enter the Promised Land.

Lowell was back in action this week, this time as an organizer of “The Trial of Don Quixote” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the 20th year that STC has hosted such a mock trial. Washington is the perfect venue for this sort of entertainment, he said—“a city filled with lawyers who are frustrated actors.” Many audience members in Monday night’s sold-out Sidney Harman Hall were lawyers themselves. They roared at even the nerdiest inside lawyer jokes, such as this one from Thomas Goldstein, a well-known Supreme Court litigator who served as counsel for Don Quixote in his guardianship case: “The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Family Court finding that Don Quixote was mentally incompetent, and there are two other reasons to overturn that ruling.”

His opponent, Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin, earnestly argued that Cervantes’ literary character was delusional and in need of a court-appointed guardian, serving as the straight man to the panel of five real-life judges. They included presiding judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both Supreme Court justices; Merrick Garland and Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals; and Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for D.C.

Each of the judges used this occasion to show off their wit and humor, a side of jurists the public doesn’t always see. When Judge Garland compared Don Quixote’s flights of fantasy to NBC newsman Brian Williams (“telling stories about glorious battles he wasn’t in”), the audience ate it up. When Judges Millett and Berman Jackson dinged former Rep. Aaron Schock for his quixotic office design or the Kardashians for, well, being themselves, they got laughs. But Kardashian jokes practically write themselves.

Justices Breyer and Ginsburg turned in the best performances of the night because their jokes were the smartest and most on point. Breyer quoted a recent Department of Energy study about the number of bats killed annually by windmills to argue that windmills really are a danger to society. Ginsburg, sitting center stage, however, stole the show. Never once breaking the fourth wall to look at the audience, the champion of women and equal rights questioned attorney Phillips about the wisdom of recommending that Quixote’s niece, Antonia, be appointed as his legal guardian. The record reflects that Antonia is going to soon marry, Ginsburg said. Given that “she will not have the right to own property, enter in contracts or manage her own affairs” under 16th century Spanish law, “how can we appoint her?”

Ginsburg was the chief justice Monday night, and boss moves like that proved why.

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