Bookish Court Opinions: Who Speaks for the Opossums?

lorax-caption

As my daughter learned last summer when she mistook a PDF of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin as literature on her Kindle,* court opinions are often dull to read no matter how important or interesting the underlying facts of the case may be.

Every now and then, though, I come across a line in an opinion that makes me smile. Some of those moments come courtesy of literary references that judges sprinkle into their treatises on the law for the sake of humor, to illustrate a point, or to show off their intelligence (depending on how pompous or obscure the reference is).

This week, I’m going to highlight a couple of literary references in court opinions over the past year.

Here is the first one, in which a court asks: who speaks for the opossums?

In People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Myers, a case decided by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina on April 5, 2016, the opinion begins with a reference to The Lorax by Dr. Seuss:

The Lorax speaks for the trees, but the question presented by this case is whether anyone may speak for the opossums, particularly those Virginia opossums (“opossum(s)”) found in Clay County, North Carolina, during late December through early January each year, who may end up in captivity as the main attraction at the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop event.

Despite its name, the Virginia opossum is the state marsupial of North Carolina, and apparently, the New Year’s Eve Possum Drop is an annual tradition in Clay County.

The event involves lowering a possum in a box in front of a large crowd of people on New Year’s Eve. As the Court explains, it’s a “rural replication of the dropping of the crystal-festooned ball in New York City’s famous Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.” According to news reports, the shaken possum is released afterwards.

Believing this activity is inhumane to the captive possums, the plaintiffs sued the commission responsible for providing the captivity licenses to the person in charge of the event. Surprisingly, the North Carolina General Assembly subsequently passed a law specific to the facts of this case, entitled, “An Act to Exempt Clay County from State Wildlife Laws With Respect to Opossums Between The Dates of December 26 and January 2.” The current version of the law applies to the entire state. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-291.13 (2016).

As a result, opossums are no longer protected by state humane laws and regulations during the time Clay County captures them to star in their New Year’s Eve event. No captivity license is required.

So, who speaks for the Virginia opossums in North Carolina? Sadly, the  Court concluded, “General Assembly has passed a law which says, in effect, that no one may speak for Virginia opossums during the relevant time period. For this reason, we must dismiss this appeal as moot.”

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*I share a Kindle account with my twins. I send opinions to my Kindle to read on my commute to and from work. After the Fisher opinion, my kids have learned to avoid these PDFs.

8 thoughts on “Bookish Court Opinions: Who Speaks for the Opossums?

  1. Poor possums! (I say that, but every time we have a crawfish boil, we do have a little crawfish race and whichever crawfish wins the race gets to live while the rest of them get boiled alive. I guess it feels okay because they’re not mammals?) Do you ever listen to Supreme Court case oral arguments on your commute? I am sporadically addicted to Oyez.org like the nerdy nerd nerd that I am. :p

  2. Pingback: Love, Money, & Marriage: Would Jane Austen Be Astounded? – The Misfortune Of Knowing

    1. I feel sorry for the possums too. They needed the legislature to speak on their behalf, but of course, possums don’t vote, and the people in charge of the event do. Still, it’s hard to believe the legislature thought passing this type of legislation was worth their time.

  3. Opossums may not be considered cute, but there is no excuse for treating them like inanimate objects with no feelings, in the case of their New Year’s traditions. They’re living creatures and should be respected as such. The poor things must be terrified, being locked in a box and jostled around while humans scream at them.

    I don’t approve of much going on in North Carolina lately. The state seems determined to march back in time, to when (Straight, White) Men ruled and everyone else obeyed.

    1. It’s a strange and disturbing annual tradition (one that isn’t even that old, maybe 20-30 years). The possums needed the legislature to speak on their behalf, but unfortunately, the people in charge of the event have a surprising amount of political power. I just can’t believe the North Carolina General Assembly thought that dropping a live, scared possum was so important that they needed to spend time on it.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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