Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House introduced the world to the never-ending legal saga of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. In Dickens’ uniquely-descriptive words:
Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, over the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce, was, of course, a fictional court case. Dickens did note, however, in the preface to Bleak House that there were two real-life cases that bore a resemblance:
At the present moment (August, 1853) there is a suit before the court which was commenced nearly twenty years ago, in which from thirty to forty counsel have been known to appear at one time, in which costs have been incurred to the amount of seventy thousand pounds, which is A FRIENDLY SUIT, and which is (I am assured) no nearer to its termination now than when it was begun. There is another well-known suit in Chancery, not yet decided, which was commenced before the close of the last century and in which more than double the amount of seventy thousand pounds has been swallowed up in costs.
Without weighing in on the merits of the cases of Dickens’ era, we wish to enlighten our readers about India’s own version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We speak, of course, of the landmark case of State v Jayalalitha (also known as the Disproportionate Assets Case of J. Jayalalithaa). The case is notable for being mind-numbingly long — nearly 20 years from start to finish. It is further notable by being decided by a mind-numbingly-long judicial opinion — 570 pages. As if that weren’t enough, its notability is further compounded by having a judicial opinion replete with convoluted vocabulary that makes India’s court cases the tangled morass of verbose convolutions for which they have been infamous.
Jayaram Jayalalitha (frequently spelled as “Jayalalithaa,” just because this case isn’t already confusing enough) was an Indian politician who was the six-time Chief Minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was charged with the misuse of her office and the misappropriation of funds. Among the allegations were that she spent public funds to acquire real estate, pay for her foster son’s wedding, and acquire masses of personal property. All told, the amounts exceeded ₹66.65 crore (US $41 million).
Jayalalitha and co-defendants were charged on June 14, 1997. After a lot of political and legal tomfoolery, the trial commenced in March 2005. The trial concluded on August 28, 2014 — 17 years, 2 months, and 15 days after charges were filed, and 9 and a half years after the trial got started.
But it wasn’t over yet.
Although the defendants were all sentenced to imprisonment, on May 11, 2015, the Karnataka High Court reversed the trial court’s decision and acquitted Jayalalitha. Twelve days after her acquittal, Jayalalitha returned to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Meanwhile, the case continues to work its way through additional levels of appeal. On February 14, 2017, the Supreme Court of India brought matters to a close, reinstating the guilty verdicts against all of the defendants, except one. The one defendant who escaped a guilty verdict was Jayalalitha. She avoided a conviction by dying from a heart attack two months before the Supreme Court’s decision. Considering how long it must have taken to write the mammoth decision (see below), one cannot help but wonder if Jayalalitha would have thus escaped conviction if the judges had been just a little less wordy.
From beginning to end, the case of State v Jayalalitha lasted 19 years, 8 months, and 1 day.
The Judicial Opinion
The first sentence of this mammoth decision briefly says, “Leave granted.” In other words, the government gets all of the things in its wish when it asked the court review to review the case. Two words just don’t seem to do justice to a 20-year-long proceeding, however, so the court continues, summarizing its legal reasoning.
Understandably, any legal proceedings that span nearly 20 years will take more than a sentence or two to summarize and address. Even so, the length of the primary decision is beyond excessive. If you do not have a life and wish to read the entire decision, you can click here.
The first 207 pages are devoted to summarizing the allegations and case history. Not until page 208 does the court begin to address the competing legal arguments. For the next 339 pages, the court meanders through a thick morass of legal reasoning until, on page 547, announcing that the Supreme Court has reversed the decision of the High Court and is reinstating the convictions. Nine pages later, the court says this again. Eight pages after that, it says it yet once more. The concept of repetition appears to be a biggie among the writers of this decision because the word reiterate appears thirty-seven times throughout its pages.
The Commonplace Fun Facts Legal Department analyzed the seventeen pages that fill the space between the initial declaration of the conclusion and the two subsequent repeats of the same. Its analysis of what those 17 pages added to the decision was summed with a shrug and the answer, “Your guess is as good as ours.”
On page 563, the court concludes its decision by stating, “The appeals are allowed in the above terms.” This, in case you have forgotten, is how it started the decision 563 pages ago.
But wait… There’s more. Five hundred sixty-three pages were not quite enough for Judge Amitava Roy, who writes a separate, supplementary opinion. This opinion is, blessedly, more succinct. Judge Roy manages to get his point across in a comparatively-paltry 7 pages, bringing the entire decision in State v Jayalalitha to a grand total of 570-pages, containing 115,657 words. This makes it just slightly longer than Huckleberry Finn, but without any of the plot.
The fact that the authors of this opinion are not exactly shining examples of the virtue of succinct writing can be seen in the length of the opinion. As if 570 pages for the entire decision wasn’t bad enough, consider that those 570 pages contain only 552 paragraphs. In other words, each paragraph is, essentially, an entire page in length. In prior stories, we have documented some atrociously-long sentences, and an inexplicably-long book title, but even those insults to the English language cannot compete with the sentence and paragraph structure of the Jayalalitha opinion.
Legal practitioners have long been accused of using unnecessarily-long and complicated legalese. The legal profession of India puts the rest of the world to shame, however. Tunku Varadarajan wrote the wonderful article “Judgment by Thesaurus” in 2016, taking the Indian legal community to task for its “hodge-podge of syntax and overblown (sometimes laughable) vocabulary.”
The case that prompted Varadarajan to write the article was a 268-page, 198-paragraph decision that opened with this sentence:
This batch of writ petitions preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution of India exposits cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord between venerated and exalted right of freedom of speech and expression of an individual, exploring manifold and multilayered, limitless, unbounded and unfettered spectrums, and the controls, restrictions and constrictions, under the assumed power of “reasonableness” ingrained in the statutory provisions relating to criminal law to reviver and uphold one’s reputation.
Had he waited less than a year, he would have encountered the Jayalalitha decision. Contained within its voluminous pages are some phrases that are reminiscent of H.L. Mencken’s critique of Warren G. Harding’s speech: “It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” The following are just a few of the gems gleaned from the pages of Jayalalitha :
- “Without resorting to a dialectical appraisal of the evidence of the individual witnesses and the documents brought on record, it would be suffice in our comprehension to notice the salient features discernible therefrom and strikingly common to the transactions.”
- “The evidence on record thus propel several conspicuous and singular features as noted comprehensively by the Trial Court.”
- “While enumerating finally the facets substantiating this determination…”
- “Apropos the off repeated grievance that the Trial Court had left out of consideration material pieces of evidence adduced by it, suffice it to state that the decision rendered by it proclaim to the contrary.”
- “…we are of the unhesitant opinion that the impugned judgment and order rendered by the High Court is untenable and is thus set aside.”
- “In view of the regnant evidence on record, unassailably proving the disproportionateness of the assets, as contemplated in Section 13(1)(e) of 1988 Act, it is inessential as well to resort to any arithmetic to compute the percentage thereof.”
These excerpts are from the primary opinion of the court. It isn’t until Judge Roy thunders forth with his supplemental opinion, however, that we get to the truly-poetic stuff:
- “A few disquieting thoughts that have lingered and languished in distressed silence in mentation demand expression at the parting with a pulpit touch.”
- “The octopoid stranglehold of this malaise with helpless awe.”
- “The variegated cancerous concoctions of corruption with fearless impunity gnawing into the frame and fabric of the nation’s essentia.”
- “Emboldened by the lucrative yields of such malignant materialism, the perpetrators of this malady have tightened their noose on the societal psyche.”
- “The asphyxiating snare of this escalating venality”
- “In the above alarming backdrop of coeval actuality, judicial adjudication of a charge based on an anti-corruption law motivated by the impelling necessities of time, has to be informed with the desired responsibility and the legislative vision therefor.”
- “Any interpretation of the provisions of such law has to be essentially purposive, in furtherance of its mission and not in retrogression thereof. Innovative nuances of evidential inadequacies, processual infirmities and interpretational subtleties, artfully advanced in defence, otherwise intangible and inconsequential, ought to be conscientiously cast aside with moral maturity and singular sensitivity to uphold the statutory sanctity, lest the coveted cause of justice is a causality.”
- “Corruption is a vice of insatiable avarice for self-aggrandizement by the unscrupulous…”
- “The pernicious menace from moral debasement of the culpables”
- “This virulent affliction triggers an imbalance in the society’s existential stratas and stalls constructive progress in the overall well-being of the nation…”
- “The militant dominance of this sprawling evil”
And we thought it was hard reading William Faulkner in Senior College English class!