POLITICS
12/31/2015 06:54 pm ET

Chief Justice Roberts Gives Everyone A Lesson On Dueling. Yes, Really.

He uses the "barbarous practice" to lecture lawyers on being nicer.
Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Chief Justice John Roberts wants you to know that dueling is bad. Really bad.

In his year-end report on the federal judiciary, released Thursday, he recounts the history and horrors of this "barbarous practice," all to make the larger point that lawyers and judges have a responsibility to, well, be nice to each other.

"Our Nation had lost Alexander Hamilton to a senseless duel in 1804," he notes, possibly moved by the hit Broadway musical -- which this tweet suggests he saw in November.

Roberts' report really digs deep into the history. He name-checks Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, and reflects that they too might have suffered Hamilton's fate had the times not allowed for "an amicable resolution" of gentlemanly disputes.

We also learn of John Lyde Wilson, a South Carolina governor, who sought to codify dueling in 1838 with a "grim" rulebook that maybe, just maybe, helped to "save lives."

The likely reason Roberts embraced the dueling motif was the dryness of the main subject of his report: the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a byzantine guidebook for lawyers and judges that was amended this year, following a five-year consultation and revision process, to bring it up to speed with the "evolving role of information technology in virtually every detail of life."

Beyond dealing with technological change, the Federal Rules govern how lawyers and judges behave -- from how they file paperwork and handle deadlines to how they conduct litigation and otherwise keep the wheels of the justice system moving.

The amended rules tells lawyers that they "have an obligation to their clients, and to the justice system, to avoid antagonistic tactics, wasteful procedural maneuvers, and teetering brinksmanship." In other words, the new rules are meant to encourage lawyers to be nicer, kinder human beings -- and for judges to keep them in check, if need be.

Near the end of the report, taking off his historian cap, Roberts hints as much.

"I cannot believe that many members of the bar went to law school because of a burning desire to spend their professional life wearing down opponents with creatively burdensome discovery requests or evading legitimate requests through dilatory tactics," he muses.

To be sure, the amended rules won't turn civil litigation into a joyous exercise. It's too soon to know if they will even make federal courts speedier and lawyers more efficient.

But Roberts is hopeful that remembering the history of dueling, in which grown men would fight to resolve a "petty squabble that left them with nothing but scars," will help drive some change today.

"We should not miss the opportunity to help ensure that federal court litigation does not degenerate into wasteful clashes over matters that have little to do with achieving a just result," he writes.

It's a New Year's message that the chief hopes lawyers take to heart.

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