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ghosts of the past clanking their chains

July 23, 2014

Judge Desmond’s opinion in Woods v. Lancet 303 N.Y. 349 (1951) quotes:

“When these ghosts of the past stand in the path of justice clanking their mediaeval chains the proper course for the judge is to pass through them undeterred.”

(Lord Atkin in United Australia, Ltd., v. Barclay’s Bank, Ltd., [1941] A. C. 1, 29).

This ghost is a reference to precedent as the decision in Woods overturned thirty year old established case law.

Consider by way of contrast, the dissent by Circuit Judge E. Grady Jolly in the Fifth Circuit’s 1999 decision Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District, 168 F.3d 806:

like boys on a summer night blithely whistling as they walk through a graveyard, for the panel majority it is not to worry so long as it is brave enough to look straight ahead and pretend that authoritative precedents are merely ghosts of the past not to be feared.

Despite the dissent, the Supreme Court of the United Stated affirmed the decision, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)

Notice the stark contrast in the way these quotes embody the role of the judge. Lord Atkin’s imagery is of a judge like some Lord of the Rings style once and future king (Aragorn approaching the Army of the Dead), whereas for Judge Jolly the judges are boys on a graveyard adventure.

See also, from StraightDope:”When did ghosts start rattling chains and moaning?” asked in 2005 by user named Shirley Unjest. The best answer comes from Walloon who cites “Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook” by Daniel Ogden and explains:

The chain rattling goes back even further to ghost stories in Ancient Roman literature. Pliny the Younger wrote a haunted story, circa A.D. 102, with a chain rattling ghost. The ghost’s corpse is found in chains. It was believed by the Romans that chains were one of the few ways to keep a ghost from wandering about.

There is also a strong connection to the Dickens character Jacob Marley from “Christmas Carol” who appears to Scrooge as a specter, “captive, bound and double-ironed” chained to “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

At Yahoo Answers, an answer from Bob explains:

usually what the significance of the chain is. It is the weight of your sins which you must drag behind you for the rest of eternity, forever unable to find peace and enter Heaven.

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