So you run your lance full-bore at windmills, recruit a barber in your fight against the muleteers, believe a local prostitute to be your damsel of grace, and then fall into a coma. Should someone be appointed to take care of you? What will the Supreme Mock Court – the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s traditional gathering of Washington high-court Judges charged with deciding the great issues of theater and literature – say about you?
Are you kidding? This is Washington, baby. Delusional thinking is our bread and butter.
The Family Court of La Mancha saw it differently, appointing Antonia, the niece of Alonso Quijana (a/k/a Don Quixote), as the old man’s guardian, based principally on the expert testimony of Dr. Sanson Carrasco – who happens to be Antonia’s fiancée.
The Don’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas Goldstein of Goldstein & Russell, P.C., launched a two-pronged attack on the decision in appeal to the Supreme Court of La Mancha (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, presiding). First, he argued, the Family Court erred in appointing a guardian at all. Second, if a guardian were to be appointed, it should have been Quijana’s dear friend, Sancho Panza, and not the treacherous Antonia.
Goldstein is one of the best and most experienced lawyers to appear before the Mock Court: nearly 100 briefs with his name on them have been reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States, and he has argued before that body thirty-five times. Even better, he is the publisher of the delightful SCOTUSblog, which tracks litigation on its way to the Supremes and analyzes what the High Bench does to it. Oh, and he teaches Supreme Court Litigation. At Harvard. And Stanford.
His opponent, Carter G. Phillips, is no – what is the expression? – potted plant, either. A former clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger, Phillips is now Chair of the Executive Committee for the superfirm Sidley Austin LLP. He’s argued seventy-one cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and was voted by his peers as one of the top ten lawyers in Washington for seven years running, starting in 2007.
But he had the unhappy task of defending the La Mancha Family Court’s decision against a decidedly hostile Mock Court. “Should we only dream the possible dream?” U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson thundered, “Should we only beat the beatable foe?” The theatrical Jackson, who serves as an occasional commentator on CNN, imagined an Army which adhered to the Family Court’s principles: “Be half of what you can be.”
Because the case was not well moored in time and space, contemporary references crept into the argument. Jackson wondered whether Don Quixote, after having flown a gyrocopter onto the White House lawn, was a threat to himself or others. (“Some dream of being…a postman,” Goldstein answered cautiously). D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patricia A. Millet speculated that since Carrasco had captured Don Quixote by surrounding him with mirrors, perhaps the best choice for guardian would be Kim Kardashian. And Jackson, confronting Goldstein with the manifest failures of Don Quixote’s knight-errant scheme, did a fair impression of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin: “How’s that dreamy, hopey thing doin’ for ya?”
In an argument about the applicability of foreign law – specifically, the law of Shakespeare’s England – DC Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland asked Goldstein “Do you know what happened in 1588?” (He was referring to the sinking of the Spanish Armada.)
“Something very bad,” Goldstein immediately replied.
The evening was full of inside jokes for lawyers. Goldstein referred to the La Mancha Family Court’s ruling as “this inexplicable decision of the 9th Circuit” and the room exploded in laughter. (The West Coast-based Court of Appeals is the least popular Circuit in the Supreme Court, having a significantly higher rate of reversal than any other Circuit Court of Appeals.) “There are two other reasons for reversal,” Goldstein continued, smirking.
But perhaps the most explosive moment came when Justice Stephen Breyer posited that when Don Quixote tilted at windmills, he was actually taking on monsters. The Justice had recently learned that last year, windmills had killed over six hundred thousand bats. “When they fly into the windmills,” the Justice said, his rolling baritone filling the room, “their little bodies go pop.” The packed house of lawyers and their friends (lawyers have friends. At least some of them do.) flinched.
Phillips had the temerity to take on the Justice’s characterization. From his encounters with bats, Phillips said, he was not against that result. “Bats eat mosquitoes!” Justice Breyer roared back, prompting speculation that the La Mancha Family Court would appoint guardians for anyone opposed to renewable energy.
While wit is prized at the Shakespeare Mock Trial, argument there is serious business, too. Both lawyers submitted briefs in defense of their position, just as they do when they appear before the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Ginsburg speculated that both lawyers had devoted hundreds of hours in preparation for the argument. Given that the hourly fee for a top DC attorney who is not Robert S. Bennett is about $500, this means that the audience received the benefit of $100,000 or more in pro bono work.
When the Supreme Court of La Mancha retired to deliberate, the audience – which constituted the jury in this case – had the opportunity to cast a blue tab, upholding the decision of the Family Court, or a red tab, voting for reversal. Thus jurors who bought either of Goldstein’s arguments – that the Family Court was wrong to appoint a guardian, or that the Family Court should have appointed Sancho Panza rather than Antonia – would be part of the red tide.
While all this was going on, the distinguished critic Robert Aubry Davis gave us a perspective on the Inquisition, which serves as the frame for the Dale Wasserman-Joe Darlon-Mitch Leigh musical. The Spanish King Ferdinand, Davis revealed, used the Inquisition to advance his notions of “blood purity.” Don Quixote’s author, Miguel de Cervantes, having authored a story which took a subtle dig at Ferdinand’s “Blood Purity Act”, found himself tried under the same law. The Inquisition discovered that Cervantes had a Jewish great-grandmother, and stripped him of his possessions. This is much the same as what happens to Cervantes in Man of La Mancha, except that he is permitted to keep his precious manuscript, which eventually turns into the novel.
The Supreme Court of La Mancha reconvened, and Justice Ginsburg, speaking for a unanimous Court, declared that without impossible dreams there would be no progress, and that therefore Don Quixote needs no guardian. Moderator and Shakespeare Theatre Bard Association Chair Abbe Lowell, from Chadbourne & Parke LLP, thereafter polled the jury by putting the enormous bag of red chips on one side of the traditional balance scale which serves as the scales of justice and the teensy bag of blue chips on the other. (“I’m so glad my cases aren’t decided this way,” Lowell said.) The imbalance caused the scales of justice to fall apart, but they were hardly needed; the war was over.
— Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2015 Mock Trial was held Monday, May 11, 2015 at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC —