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Friar Laurence free to go in case of Juliet and her Romeo

The line for the Jingle Ball, which took place last night at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, stretched down 7th Street and around the corner onto F Street. Groups of huddled teenagers and young couples, arm in arm, waited in the cold for the annual holiday concert, featuring artists who were “established, but not Stevie Nicks established,” according to one (older) line-waiter.

A different crowd, dressed more soberly and warmly, was headed to another nearby destination – the Shakespeare Theatre Company – to fulfill their civic duty as jurors at the theatre group’s 25th mock trial. Echoing “Romeo and Juliet,” ancient grudge had again broken to new mutiny, and a wrongful death suit filed by the Montagues and the Capulets against Friar Laurence found itself before a panel of distinguished judges: Justice Samuel Alito of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judges Thomas Griffith, Brett Kavanaugh and Robert Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

In the role of chief justice, Alito seemed quite comfortable with his opening declaration, as if he might enjoy one day being the real one: “We will hear argument in the case of Lord and Lady Montague, Lord and Lady Capulet v. Friar Laurence. Counsel.”

Representing Friar Laurence, Elizabeth Prelogar, an assistant to the solicitor general, began by arguing that her client could not be legally considered a proximate cause in the deaths of the star-cross’d lovers because it was not foreseeable that his plan would fail. Although Friar Laurence’s advice that Juliet fake her death with a sleeping potion seemed questionable, Prelogar insisted, “all the polling uniformly showed the plan would succeed.” Indeed, she maintained, “52% of Verona was still smarting” from the plan’s failure.

Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story,” Prelogar continued, clearly indicates that the lovers’ parents, especially Juliet’s “daddy,” Lord Capulet, were to blame. Kavanaugh pushed back against this line of reasoning, pointing out that Swift’s song has a happy ending. “We can’t re-write history, we aren’t the 9th Circuit,” he said, taking a jab at the oft-reversed court of appeals; Alito seemed to particularly enjoy this remark.

The judges questioned Friar Laurence’s motives, suggesting that the friar’s primary interest was in glorifying himself, not providing spiritual counsel to the two children. Prelogar presented a much more humble portrait of her client: The friar only wanted to return Verona to a peaceful place in which people didn’t bite their thumbs at one another in the street – to “make Verona great again.”

The judges also wondered whether Friar Laurence had incurred liability through his decision to entrust his message to Friar John to a private email server. Prelogar pithily responded, “he really regrets that choice.” “But when they go low,” she continued, “the friar goes high, as in, really, really high; he’s with Him.”

In addition, Prelogar maintained, Friar Laurence was not cowardly but prudent when he left Juliet alone in the tomb shortly before her suicide; “no one wants to be banishéd,” she explained. Kavanaugh scoffed at this idea, suggesting that the friar was merely “blowing smoke, like threatening to move to New Zealand.”

On behalf of the parents, Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia, opened strongly: “Crooked Friar Laurence,” he began, and then paused, “with his small hands,” he gestured, was to blame for the tragedy. Racine playfully wove Shakespearean titles into his opening argument: The “Comedy of Errors” in this “Winter’s Tale” was far from “Much Ado About Nothing,” and, “Measure for Measure,” the fault lay with the “crooked friar.” Griffith matched him: The families have reconciled, so why isn’t this “All’s Well That Ends Well”? Racine put a blunt end to the game: “It’s about the money.”

Racine portrayed the friar not as a spiritual counselor but as a manipulative seeker of worldly fame. The friar, Racine asserted, alluding to the musical “Hamilton,” thought that with his plan, the world was gonna know his name. Turning to the jury, Racine asked “What’s his name?” “Friar Laurence!” the jury shouted back.

Jackson suggested that if Juliet’s parents had known anything about teenage psychology, they would have teased Juliet about Romeo and invited him over to dinner. Then she would have forgotten all about him. Cementing Jackson’s point, Griffith challenged Racine, asserting that “it seems clear that the parents messed up bigly.”

Kavanaugh pointed out that there was no way Friar Laurence could have known that Friar John was “low energy.” Griffith interjected that he thought the friar’s plan had failed because of a sudden bridge closing between Mantua and Verona. In closing, Wilkins offered another explanation: “I thought it was that Friar John lived on the Red Line.”

After an evening of mostly humorous arguments by both sides, Prelogar closed her rebuttal with a sonnet, the heroic couplet ending with the plea, “reverse.”

As he announced the verdict, Alito praised Prelogar’s poetry and indicated that he expects future briefs from the solicitor general’s office to be written in iambic pentameter. Ruling for the friar, he explained that “three of us subscribe to evolving standards of parenting, while two remain back in the 16th century” (Griffith and Wilkins dissented). The jury as well voted overwhelmingly for Friar Laurence. Abbe Lowell, the event’s moderator, suggested that with his legal travails behind him, Friar Laurence was now free to take over the Food and Drug Administration.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s twice-annual mock trials provide an opportunity for engagement between Washington’s legal and artistic communities. The next mock trial, scheduled for June 19, 2017, will address legal issues in “Macbeth,” which will open at the Shakespeare Theatre on April 25.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Friar Laurence free to go in case of Juliet and her Romeo, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 13, 2016, 12:44 PM),