On John Roberts and Pettifogging

Pettifogging

Watch Chief Justice John Roberts here.  (For some reason You Tube will not let me access its embedding codes today).

Pettifogging: “worrying too much about details that are minor or not important.”  It was often used a derogatory statement about lawyers.

Charles Swayne was a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Florida.  He was appointed by Benjamin Harrison in 1889 and confirmed by the Senate in 1890.  The House of Representatives impeached him on December 13, 1904 for “filing false travel vouchers, improper use of private railroad cars, unlawfully imprisoning two attorneys for contempt outside of his district. (Sounds like pettifogging to me! 🙂 ) Swayne admitted to the charges and called his lapses “inadvertent.” The Senate found him “not guilty” on February 27, 1905.

You can read the excerpt from the trial, including the use of the word “pettifogging,” here (p.188).

You can also read an edited excerpt of the proceedings from Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives.

A few thoughts:

First, we can always use more civil discourse.  Of all the House Managers, Nadler is the most obnoxious.  Cipollone and Sekulow seems to be performing for Donald Trump.

Second, John Roberts came to the Trump impeachment trial prepared.  He anticipated this kind incivility and was ready with the “pettifogging” quote from the 1905 Swayne trial.  Nice work.  We will see what he has up his sleeve today.

Third, is Roberts right when he says that the Senate is the “world’s greatest deliberative body” because “its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse?” This is how the framers may have envisioned the Senate, but American history suggests that Roberts may be too optimistic about this legislative body.  Here is Yale historian Joanne Freeman in Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War:

…the Senate was generally calmer than the House.  Smaller in size, with its acoustics in working order and its members a little older, more established, more experienced, and sometimes higher on the social scale, it was a true forum for debate….Debate in the Senate was thus more of a dialogue–long winded, agenda-driven, and something of a performance, but a dialogue just the same. That doesn’t mean the Senate was a haven of safety.  It wasn’t  There were plenty of threats and insults on the floor. Henry Clay (W-KY) was a master.  His attack in 1832 on the elderly Samuel Smith (J-MD), a Revolutionary War veteran and forty-year veteran of the Senate, was so severe that senators physically drew back, worried that things might get ugly.  Clay called Smith a tottering old man with flip-flopping politics; Smith denied it and countered that he could “take a view” of Clay’s politics that would prove him inconsistent; and Clay jeered “Take it, sir, take it–I dare you!”  Smith defended himself, but when he later sought the advice of John Quincy Adams (clearly Fight Consultant Extraordinaire), Smith was do deeply wounded that he was on the verge of tears.