Legal writing can be dry and characterless, but a moment in state history (such as the disbarment of a county attorney) is occasionally of such gravity that a judge may feel compelled to aim for the rhetorical heights when issuing an opinion that will stand with the force of the law.
The three-member panel that ruled Tuesday against Andrew Thomas and Lisa Aubuchon may have showed judicial prudence in their reasoning. Whether they showed literary prudence is a question for additional scrutiny.
The 246-page opinion was written by a panel, including Judge William O'Neil, attorney Mark Sifferman and the Rev. John Hall of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Chandler. There's no way to tell which hot passages came from whose pen - or that of some eager junior legal staff who were raised on a combination of Felix Frankfurter and Danielle Steele -- but whoever these authors were, they seemed to have been writing with one eye aimed at the marble tablets of Maricopa County history.
In places it seems a shame, as the plain facts of this fiasco are appalling enough on their own without the occasionally mock-Shakespearean tone of the authors to help us along. Shakespeare himself does get quoted, as a matter of fact, along with Winston Churchill, the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and former Vogue editor Diane Vreeland (you have to read it), all set amidst adjective-filled imagery of falling dominoes, misty seashores, failing dikes, brushfires out of control, tragic ambition, duels, rendered garments and one extended conceit of a careening roller coaster that, while wholly unoriginal, certainly kept the pages turning.
While it may be challenging to separate the genuinely august from the grossly orotund, we sorted through the document and ranked the most dramatic passages in the order of their tonal pitch, with additional points awarded for mixed metaphors.
10) "With the intervention of independent bar counsel, the fog of deceit had reached the shore of reality."
9) "It is the story of legal maneuvering, driven like a roller coaster intentionally ripped from its rails, by unethical operators bent on misusing power and promulgating fear.....Once this story's coaster begins to move, many human hearts beat faster. Each new loop of track causes pain for the riders, strapped down and confronted with the great forces being unleashed. As the story unfolds and the cars begin to jump their track, ethical equilibrium is lost and truth goes terribly wrong."
8) "At some point in his career, a leak formed in the dike of Andrew Thomas's ethical restraint. In short time, it rapidly grew....He seemingly became complacent to the legion of structural fractures throughout his character that followed. Within a few short years the hole had become a radical moral dislocation." 7) [A casual rumor passed along from a former attorney general] "likely started the bonfire of disharmony within Mr. Thomas with which he sought to burn Mr. [Tom] Irvine."
6) "A gaping void was opened in the life of the people of Maricopa County where any citizen's rights could be burned as part of the maintenance of this fake conspiracy."
5) "The worst was done. The ride was in flames. Yet, Thomas and Aubuchon still couldn't see for all the smoke." 4) "By the time Andrew Thomas resigned, with his hopes of attaining higher public office and greater public trust, his legacy lay in a smoldering heap, its smoke slowly curling skyward like a prayer for relief."
3) "Here, all too frequently, we find only a final domino sited intentionally in a fallen position followed by a specious declaration that there had to be dominoes of dark criminal purpose that brought its fall. They knew the truth and the truth set them free to endlessly serve up innuendo as the entrée."
2) "The facts within this multi-chaptered story underscore the misery that lays dormant, expectant and waiting for the moment when such a self-centered theme is played to the staccato machine-gun fire of a series of unethical actions in harmony with malevolent rationalizations." And the chief peroration is...
1) "Respondents Thomas and Aubuchon joined hands to inflict an economic blizzard on that public and multiple individuals which is paled only by the intentional infliction of emotional devastation their icy calculated storm left in its wake....Behind the flimsy fabric of their rationalizations raged apparent unfettered passions that were fueled by a darkness of purpose, blessed by a self-righteous self-centeredness and draped in a disguise of hypocritical indignation."
Note: The above was written by Tom Zoellner, who is a journalist, nonfiction author, and Associate Professor of English at Chapman University. He lives in Los Angeles.