COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Judith Ann Lanzinger had always considered herself a literal person, a judge who prefers words on paper to be clear — especially in legal briefs and statutes.
But now the Ohio Supreme Court justice embraces some ambiguous words, teaching poetry to fellow judges, helping them, like herself, to use art and literature to break down barriers and to prompt introspection.
If nothing else, she’s found that the words of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman can bring a little peace into a judge’s life, where there can sometimes be a shortage.
“I was very anti-poetry for a long time,” the Toledo justice said. “I’m a very literal person. Like a lot of judges, words are tools. We do a lot of reading and writing, so words mean a lot .
“Judges look at the meaning of what is apparently legal jargon,” she said. “We understand that a word means what it means. Poetry is so different. . Ambiguity may not always be a bad thing.”
Justice Lanzinger has served as judge on Toledo Municipal Court, Lucas County Common Pleas Court, and the 6th District Court of Appeals. She will be forced from the Supreme Court bench at the end of this year after two six-year terms because of Ohio’s mandatory judicial retirement age.
For the sixth time, she will co-teach a course on literature, poetry, and the law with fellow judges in September in Ashland, Ore., for the National Judicial College. The course will coincide with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“These are important courses, but this is generally not a course you would take to become a judge, like evidence, writing, search and seizure,” said Chad Schmucker, head of the National Judicial College and a former Jackson County, Mich., circuit judge and state court administrator.
“But this is something that someone gets into at midcareer, around the time of stress and burnout,” he said. “I would not say that this is a popular course with new or newer judges. Some people would have no interest in this. Many judges are quite interested in this.”
Justice Lanzinger also led a Web seminar on “Poetry as Judicial Medicine” last spring.
She points to the poem “We Real Cool,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gwendolyn Brooks and published in 1960:
“We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Ms. Brooks was writing about black men in a pool hall.
“She wrote about the minority groups she was familiar with,” Justice Lanzinger said. “We talk about what the poem was all about.
“We get into issues of the criminal justice system, about perceptions and how we treat individuals. Do we treat them differently because of cultural background? We explore whether there might be a hidden bias.
“All individuals have them, even though we don’t always acknowledge them, because of our backgrounds and upbringing,” she said. “We use poems as a jumping-off point into thinking about things we otherwise might not take the time to think about.”
Justice Lanzinger first took a similar course 20 years ago while studying for a master’s degree in judicial studies. She’s been active with the National Judicial College since the 1980s.
The Republican justice isn’t known for her colorful opinions. Her interest in poetry has not tempted her yet to write opinions in meter or rhyme, unlike colleague Justice Paul Pfeifer, who’s been known to sprinkle a pop culture reference into his opinions. He once quoted “The Princess Bride” to make a point about the not-so-exciting subject of uninsured motorists’ coverage.
Justice Lanzinger realizes that a “touchy-feely” subject like poetry can be a tough sell as a judicial tool.
“It’s not just a frill,” Justice Lanzinger said. “It’s something that may appear nonsubstantive, but it’s still focused on judicial temperament. It leads into our discussion on ethical matters. No one wants to personally disclose things easily. But when you have something that everyone can look at, it becomes easier to talk about.”
She pauses a moment to read one of her favorites — May Swenson’s “A Question:”
“Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide”
Poems, such as this about the afterlife, can also provide an escape for highly stressed judges, who often have to deal with the uglier side of life in their courtrooms.
“One thing is it makes you slow down,” Justice Lanzinger said. “You can’t read it fast. Judges are readers, especially on the appellate bench. We have tons of material to read, and to keep up you have to be a very quick reader.
“With poetry, you can’t do that,” she said. “You have to stop and reflect. Each word is read to have meaning and has been selected for major impact.”
The judicial college provided one anonymous judge’s evaluation of one of the courses Justice Lanzinger has taught.
“The more human we are, the better judges we are,” the judge wrote. “Good literature and good poetry make us more human.”
Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/