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You’ve Got to Love a Judge With a Sharp Sense of Humor

Judge Samuel Frederick (“Fred”) Biery, Jr.

I am not a lawyer, but a high school government class assignment many years ago showed me the amusing side of the legal profession. Like many other professions, there is a jargon and a style peculiar to the law that most legal writing follows. Also like many other professions, when someone steps outside that style, it can make a powerful impact. And if humor is involved, it can be especially powerful. So I like reading legal opinions, and when my lawyer friends who know this about me discover a juicy one, they often send it my way.

I got a juicy one this past week from bmaz.

Comes now before the blog Samuel Frederick (“Fred”) Biery, Jr., Chief Judge of the US District Court in San Antonio. . . .

Last year Biery ruled on a church-state case involving prayer at a Texas high school. He ruled against the school district, and the decision was overturned on appeal and sent back to his court for further action and to sort out the details. Over the last several months, Biery has been pushing, prodding, nudging, and otherwise encouraging the two sides closer together, and in February a full settlement agreement was reached [pdf]. But it didn’t happen without a real mess, as the judge made clear in the order approving the settlement:

In that settlement agreement, Biery started off not with the facts of the case, but the non-facts:

What This Case Has Not Been About

The right to pray.
Any American can pray, silently or verbally, seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, in private as Jesus taught [1] or in large public events as Mohammed instructed. [2]

[1] Matthew 6:5-8 (“and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray. . . . And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”).
[2] 2 Quran 2:43 (“You shall observe the Contact Prayers and give the obligatory charity, and bow down with those who bow down.”). Muslims are obligated to attend the mosque at least once a week and other prayers may be said alone, but all prayer is always more acceptable to God in community. See PAUL GRIEVE, A BRIEF GUIDE TO ISLAM: FAITH, RELIGION, POLITICS (Carroll and Graf, 2006). Daily prayers within fixed times are done “with the entire brotherhood and sisterhood of believers facing towards Mecca from all around the world, following the same prescribed formula.” Id.

Thinks about that for a moment.

Those clamoring for the right to pray publicly — in Texas, we’re talking about strongly evangelical fundamentalists Christians — are told they are following Mohammed’s teachings. Biery inserts the knife oh-so-gently, and gives it a nice little twist.

But when you get to the end of the settlement, it gets even better. After he signed his name under the line that says “It is so ORDERED,” he added this:


During the course of this litigation, many have played a part:

To the United States Marshal Service and local police who have provided heightened security:

Thank you.

To those Christians who have venomously and vomitously cursed the court family and threatened bodily harm and assassination: In His name, I forgive you.

To those who have prayed for my death: Your prayers will someday be answered, as inevitably trumps probability.

To those in the executive and legislative branches of government who have demagogued this case for their own political goals: You should be ashamed of yourselves.

To the lawyers who have advocated professionally and respectfully for their clients’ respective positions: Bless you.

I can only imagine what his mail had been like from “those Christians,” and I love the way he called them out on it.

Alas, things only got worse, and earlier this week Biery stepped in again, issuing what he labeled a “Non-Kumbaya Order”.

From the order:

On February 9, 2012, the Court approved the parties’ settlement agreement. Observing that the Court would retain jurisdiction to enforce it for the next ten years, the Court “urged the parties to “be tolerant of the beliefs of others and abide by the standards they have set for themselves.” (Docket no. 136, at page 2). To ensure the parties promote respect for and compliance with its terms, the settlement agreement contains a non-disparagement provision: “School District Personnel will not disparage the Plaintiffs.”

Hours after the Court approved the settlement agreement, the MVISD superintendent gave a televised interview and, among other things, stated “It is a witch hunt — [t]hat’s all this has been.”

This was  followed by a lengthy description of public comments and actions a few days later by the band director, similarly disparaging of the plaintiffs.


An agreement meant to last for at least 10 years didn’t even last until the end of the day. But it’s not as if Biery didn’t see this coming. He went on:

Like a good cook, the Court has purposely let this matter dished up to the court simmer for several weeks. The reason for the delay was to see if further allegations were made once the emotions of the moments and media attention following the settlement agreement had subsided. The Court has not been made away of any.

Silence is golden.

He could have left it there, and moved on to a “let’s keep going with that whole ‘silence’ thing, shall we?” but instead he emphasized the golden-ness of silence by noting six lawyers who would have benefited from more of it themselves: Richard Nixon, Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell, Bill Clinton, former Texas attorney general Dan Morales, FDL favorite Scooter Libby, and Texas judge Samuel Kent. “Do you really want to join that illustrious company?” he seemed to ask them.

He could have left it there, too, but he kept going. You can read the whole delightful thing for yourselves at the link.

Finally, though, he ends by giving the two parties a choice, saying in essence, “You don’t have to sing Kumbaya, but you do have to cut this crap out.” He crafted a written statement of apology, and a second statement accepting the apology, and laid them both before the parties. He directed the school district to sign the first within ten days and deliver it to the other party in the case, and directed them to sign the acceptance and deliver it back to the school district. If that happens, said Biery, I’ll dismiss the allegations of contempt and we’ll move on from here. If not, we can schedule a contempt hearing — only the fifth time in his years on the bench that he’s had to do so.

No word yet on whether they’ve signed off, but I love the way he dealt with this mess.

Yep — You’ve got to love a judge with sharp sense of humor.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.