ANNAPOLIS, Md. — “Unlike the bullet or the misplaced banana peel, the effect of toxic substances on the body is often subtle and slow, leaving cause uncertain.”
That’s not how many judges begin their official written opinions. But for Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Robert McDonald, a little flair goes a long way.
McDonald, a Harvard Law School graduate and a former chief counsel for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, was appointed to the state’s highest court nearly two years ago. Since then, he has written several opinions that include literary references, creative rhetoric or even a touch of humor.
“I think one thing that all the judges try to do when they write opinions is to, hopefully, make them accessible and understandable to even people who are not lawyers,” he said.
The banana peel example introduced the court’s March opinion in a case in which a woman was seeking damages, claiming she was exposed to lead paint as a child.
McDonald’s literary citations in other cases have included references to Shakespeare and the Bible.
While McDonald said he doesn’t view his written opinions as particularly unique, the judge’s lingual liberties are fairly uncommon for a court opinion.
A survey in 2008 of more than 2 million federal appellate opinions found only about 0.03 percent contained references to works of fiction, and these were dwarfed by the number of citations to history, economics and other social science texts.
McDonald’s background is in economics, but his wife and several friends were English majors and one of his clerks has an advanced English degree, he said. Despite their influence, McDonald said he does not seek out literary references, but simply tries to make his writing as clear as possible.
In a September opinion, McDonald enlisted Shakespeare to help analyze the definition of the word “confines” in a Maryland handgun possession law. “In Romeo and Juliet, the ill-fated Mercutio spoke of laying one’s sword upon a table when entering the ‘confines of a tavern.’ Maryland law regulating a modern weapon of choice also makes reference to the ‘confines’ of an establishment,” he wrote.