From his bench on the D.C. Superior Court, Judge John H. Bayly Jr. is breathing new vitam into a dead language.
The family court lawyer’s divorce case had been pending for more than a year. Superior Court Judge John H. Bayly Jr. had first heard arguments in the case in May, and the lawyer had filed a motion for a hearing on child support payments soon afterward. But by July of last year, he still had no hearing date.
That’s when the lawyer remembered that Bayly had a rather unusual way of ending court sessions: Instead of the usual “adjourned until further notice,” he’d utter a conclusory “Sine die.”
And so, before filing another motion, the lawyer—who has asked to remain sine nomine—reached for a copy of Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others. In his second motion, he reminded the judge that the next hearing date was still sub judice, or awaiting the judge’s decision, and reiterated that his client’s estranged spouse was behaving unfairly. “His conduct is not ex aequo et bono,” complained the lawyer.
Mirabile dictu! The lawyer had his hearing before Judge Bayly just a few weeks later.
The lawyer got his way, he thinks, because he was pleading his case to D.C.’s leading judicial defender of the ancient tongue of Cicero and Caesar. Bayly upholds the utility of the defunct language—which gave us the contemporary Romance languages and even a good chunk of modern English—against those who think it went out with Justinian. In Bayly’s terra, Latin lives.
When told that lawyers looking to impress him have been cribbing from books such as Amo, Amas, Amat, Bayly replies, “That’s a good book, but a more comprehensive book is Black’s Law Dictionary. There’s a great corpus—that’s a Latin word—of Latin in the law. There’s about 15 to 20 phrases that are regularly used.”
But, although all lawyers have to know how to request a writ of mandamus, few have had the benefit of formal training in the language of Virgil, as Bayly did when he was being educated by the Jesuits at Gonzaga College High School. Over the years, says the 55-year-old Bayly, he’s had to endure the mispronunciations and misspellings of the uninitiated. Sometimes, he can’t fight the urge to correct them.
One criminal defense attorney remembers walking out of court with Bayly a few years ago. As they were exiting, the judge quietly corrected the conjugation of a Latin verb the lawyer had used in his arguments. “Doing my best to keep a straight face, I said something like, ‘Thank you, Your Honor. I’ll see to that in the future,’” the defense counsel recalls.
Other than a few standard phrases, however, Latin isn’t used that much in court, says Howard University Classics Department Chair Rudolph Hock. But, he insists, students of Latin make better lawyers. “Classics was among the top five highest-scoring majors [on the Law School Admissions Test]. A good liberal-arts undergrad major is a real desideratum for law schools,” he says.
And if Bayly stays on the bench for another decade, adds Hock, he may get to see more lawyers who know their judex (judge) from their judices (jury). “Northern Virginia is a hotbed of Latin secondary education,” he says. “Here at the university, we’re also experiencing a revival.”
According to Bayly, there was a time when D.C. law prohibited the use of Latin in the courtroom. “The concern was that lawyers would sling it around to bamboozle and confuse people,” Bayly says. But, Dei gratias, those days are over. “I like to put in a plug for Latin,” the judge says. “It’s still useful.” CP