Friday, November 25, 2005


By Stockton

This post is part of our continuing series on famous judges. For those of you entering law school, some background on the men and women who wrote the opinions you will soon be reading is essential. We hope you find this series educational, entertaining and useful as you embark upon your law school careers. Feel free to utilize the information presented to impress your professors.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is likely the single most famous Supreme Court Judge. His opinions are legion and many of his dissents would ultimately become the law of the land in later years.

Holmes is probably most famous for his mustache. Holmes detractors claim his facial hair lacked the robust jocularity of Stephen Johnson Field's beard but many saw a sly, sardonic intelligence in Holmes' finally coiffed and dangerously sharp mustache. Indeed, in later years, Holmes would shellaque the ends of his mustache to a razor-sharp point and continuously jab Justice Moody until the latter ran from the bench. Later in life, when palsy caused his hands to shake, Holmes would use his mustache to spear his food.

Holmes served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was wounded three times but friends began to take the injuries less seriously when they noticed how his sling shifted from arm to arm depending on the day of the week.

Holmes opinions are a model of judicial clarity and economy. Holmes spent hours honing his opinions, trimming unnecessary words until the writing was clear, concise and as short as possible. Eventually, Holmes would actually draw his opinions, depicting facts by using stick figures. Holmes became so obsessed with the economical us of words that his last opinion was merely a blank sheet of paper which he proudly showed off to his bewildered brethren.*

Holmes most famous opinion is often misquoted, a constant source of frustration for the justice. In Schenck v United States (1919), a landmark First Amendment case, Holmes wrote, "You cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater." After a series of theater fire tragedies Holmes issued a press-release stating: "If there's a friggin' fire, shout fire all you want! If there's no fire, sit back and enjoy the show."

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In later years, Holmes posed as
a centerfold for Playjudge

Holmes died in a theater fire in 1933.

* Three other justices concurred in Holmes' final opinion

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