A Case by Any Other Name …

May 2, 2013

Some of our greatest writers – Shakespeare, Dickens, and J.K. Rowling – are also our greatest namers. The sobriquets they’ve invented are fun, memorable, and often tell us a bit about an individual’s personality or characteristics.  Think of Shakespeare’s quick-tempered Prince Hotspur, Dickens’s acerbic Mrs. Sowerberry, or J.K. Rowling’s pernicious Draco Malfoy. Such descriptive names are called aptonyms – literally “apt names – and are an ancient phenomena.  The Romans delighted in them, calling real-life aptonyms by the sobriquet nomen est omen, literally, “the name is the prophesy.” In the Book of Samuel, Abigail begs David not to hurt her husband Nabal via an aptonym, beseeching David that “as his name, so is he.” (In ancient Hebrew, the name “Nabal” sounds very much like the word for “revulsion.”)

The legal world has its own fair share of aptonyms, from Judges Learned Hand and John Minor Wisdom to the fictional firm of Dewey Cheatem, & Howe. But it turns out there is another, previously unexamined field of aptonyms: legal cases. I’ve been searching for cases where the name of the case reflects its legal principal. Here are the five best legal aptonyms I’ve found so far:

1. The Power of Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving were happily married in Washington, D.C. But because Richard was white and Mildred was black, their marriage was illegal in Virginia. When they moved there, they were prosecuted and convicted. The Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, holding in Loving v. Virgnia that marriage was “one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” and therefore interracial couples had a constitutional right to marry.  In aptonymic terms, racist laws fell before the power of Loving.

2. Prosecuting Schmuck[s]

Wayne Schmuck was a used car salesman who tampered with odometers. Unfortunately for him, he was caught (not all schmucks are) and charged with mail fraud (he sold the cars to dealers who had to mail in title applications listing the bogus mileage). Schmuck claimed that the mailings were not actually part of his fraudulent scheme. The Supreme Court held, in Schmuck v. United States, that he was guilty of mail fraud because, “Schmuck’s was not a ‘one-shot’ operation in which he sold a single car to an isolated dealer. His was an ongoing fraudulent venture.” In other words, Schmuck was guilty because he was a schmuck.

3. Losing Valentine[s]

Johny Valentine was a Mississippi plumber whose wife, Sandra, ran off with a millionaire, Jerry Fitch. So Valentine did the only reasonable thing: he sued Fitch. And won. Big time. A jury awarded Valentine approximately $750,000 for “alienation of affections.” Fitch appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court and lost. In 2007, The Court decided Fitch v. Valentine, which held that although Mississippi was in the “minority” by recognizing actions for alienation of affections, it was well within the public policy needs of the state to protect the “the love, society, companionship, and comfort that form the foundation of a marriage.” In other words, don’t mess with someone else’s Valentine.

4. Depraved Arzon 

Nelson Arzon set fire to a couch. Tragically, one of the firemen responding to the ensuing apartment blaze was killed (although likely by a separate – and independent – fire started by someone else in a different part of the building). Arzon was prosecuted for felony murder, and the trial court judge in People v. Arzon held that Arzon’s arson constituted “depraved indifference to human life.”

5. Outlaw’s rights

Marvin Outlaw was arrested for cocaine possession. He had been stopped and searched by police officers because he was in a “neighborhood frequented by crime.” The Colorado Supreme Court, in Outlaw v. People, held that just because a place is frequented by outlaws, that itself “is not in itself a basis for concluding that [an] Outlaw was engaged in criminal conduct.”

This article is based on a forthcoming essay in Michigan Law Review’s First Impressions. Find the full essay here

Aaron Zelinsky is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Maryland School of Law.