A kick in the pants

AJUDICIAL DECISION in Washington last week reverberated not just across the United States but throughout the world. We’re referring not to the Supreme Court’s decision on racial integration in public schools but to a ruling by the heretofore obscure D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff.

Bartnoff is the judge who ruled against Roy L. Pearson, a sort-of colleague (he’s an administrative law judge) who had gone to court demanding $67 million — later reduced to $54 million — from a dry cleaner he claimed had lost a pair of his trousers. From Ireland to China to Australia, newspapers editorialized about Pearson’s comeuppance. The glee was bipartisan and cross-ideological. The conservative Washington Times lavished praise on Bartnoff even though, as it noted, she was a Clinton appointee.

What accounts for the extraordinary currency of this story? One explanation is that it is deliciously conducive to the wordplay of which journalists are so fond: Pearson was “taken to the cleaners,” his lawsuit was an example of a “full-court press,” he went looking for his pants but lost his shirt (he had to pay court costs), etc., etc.

The Case of the Missing Trousers might also have rung a bell for “Seinfeld” fans who recall how Cosmo Kramer, whose face was disfigured by exposure to cigarette smoke, was urged by hyperactive litigator Jackie Chiles to sue a tobacco company. “Your face is my case,” Chiles told Kramer. Maybe Pearson, who represented himself, thought his pants were his chance.

All true, yet at the risk of over-interpreting this episode, we would suggest that a Larger Issue lurks in the worldwide interest in this story. Pearson is a fascinating figure not only because he gave frivolous litigation a bad name, but because he took to extremes an admirable American impulse: to demand justice not in the streets but in court.