Jarndyce v. Jarndyce — Obsure Reference, Appropriate Reference, Both?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In the first paragraph of an Appellate Division decision handed down earlier this week, In The Matter of the Estate of Harry Sable, the court noted that the tortured procedural history of the case had not yet "achieved the status of the fictional [case of] Jarndyce v. Jarndyce described in Charles Dickens' Bleak House." I have always felt that Charles Dickens was one of those authors that people claim to love because they think they should love him, even though many have never read him, or at least not since they had to read him in High School. I do not claim to love Charles Dickens or claim to have read him so I did not get the Appellate Division's reference and assumed — naturally — that if I didn't get it then it must be an obscure reference.

Apparently, I was wrong.

It turns out that Bleak House is a common reference for courts in New Jersey and elsewhere that is almost always cited for the exact proposition that it was used by the Appellate Division. For the ignorant (like me), Bleak House:

concerns the fate of a large inheritance. The case has dragged on for many generations before the action of the novel, so that, when it is resolved late in the narrative, legal costs have devoured the whole estate. Dickens used it to attack the chancery court system as being near totally worthless, as any "honourable man among its [Chancery's] practitioners" says, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!" Jardyce v. Jardyce was

(Thank you Wikipedia.)

 


A quick Westlaw search reveals that it has been referenced six times by New Jersey state and federal court judges, nine times by the U.S. Supreme Court, and more than 333 times by other state and federal courts outside of New Jersey. For example, in a 2011 decision involving the estate of E. Pierce Marshall (Anna Nicole Smith's former beau), Chief Justice Roberts began his decision for the Court as follows:

This “suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that … no two … lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it;” and, sadly, the original parties “have died out of it.” A “long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out” during that time, and still the suit “drags its weary length before the Court.” Those words were not written about this case, see C. Dickens, Bleak House, in 1 Works of Charles Dickens 4–5 (1891), but they could have been.
 
The earliest relevant reference to Bleak House and the Jarndyce case was made almost 100 years before this one. The Georgia Supreme Court cited the novel in a 1913 decision. New Jersey was a little late to the game — its first reference to Bleak House did not occur until 1962.
 
My apologies to the Appellate Division for doubting its appropriate, relevant, and clever literary reference. Also, I look forward to reading Bleak House and letting you know what I think in a future blog post. Just don't expect my review anytime soon. According to the Kindle App that I will use to read it, it is more than 700 pages long. And I read slowly.

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