Bryan Garner on Words

The incoherence of Serjeant Arabin, champion of judicial illogic

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Arabin typically made snap judgments. In one case, a man named Buckley was one of two defendants charged with stealing a handkerchief. Buckley asked a witness whether he’d seen him with the handkerchief. The witness said no. Upon conviction of both defendants, Arabin said to Buckley: “The moment I heard your question, I knew that you were both practiced thieves—common pickpockets.”

Arabin claimed for himself almost supernatural powers in judging: “I can try this case in five minutes; and it will take any other judge, whoever he may be, two hours.” He once said to a witness: “Now, mind: We sit here day after day, year after year, hour after hour, and we can see through a case in a moment.”

No fan of stare decisis, as you might imagine, Arabin was unmoved by precedents. When counsel offered to cite cases in support of his position, Arabin declared: “I don’t care anything for any cases whatever.”

He was partial to quick trials, sometimes suggesting that both trial and execution could take place within five minutes. In one case, he said to a witness: “You must remember—and if you don’t remember, you ought to know—that nothing whatever that is said in a prisoner’s absence against him can be used in evidence under any circumstance whatever, if he was not present when it was said; and if he was, any man might be convicted and hanged in five minutes.”

Sometimes Arabin attributed clairvoyance to everyone in the courtroom. Here, he was questioning a police officer:

The court: “Tell us what you know about this.”

Witness: “On the day in question, I was walking along Hoxton New Town, on duty ... .”

The court (interrupting): “What’s the use of telling us what everybody knows?”

In another case, Arabin became indignant at what his own clairvoyance told him.

The court (to witness): “Did you ever buy a horse from the prisoner?”

Witness: “No.”

The court: “Then did you not pay him a 5-pound note for that horse?”

Defense counsel: “I am about to submit ... .”

The court: “I cannot hear you. I know what you are about to say, and it is so monstrous and preposterous ... .”


Arabin’s biases were outrageous—and often transparent. He once admonished a jury: “One woman is worth 20 men for a witness any day.” Yet he would turn around and berate female witnesses in shocking ways. To one who didn’t talk loudly enough, he said: “You come here in false wigs. If you can’t speak out, I’ll take off your bonnet; if that won’t do, you shall take your cap off; and if you don’t speak out then, I’ll take your hair off.” And to another: “If you don’t speak out, I’ll take off your bonnet; and you’ll never get a husband.”

In a case involving the theft of pigs, a defense witness was approaching the stand when Arabin said: “Now, young woman, for you are a young woman and have a child in your arms; if I catch you tripping, I will put you where the prisoner is. I have given you warning kindly: You had better say you know nothing about this matter.”

Some of his prejudices were geographic. In one case, he announced to the jury at the outset: “This case is from Uxbridge. I won’t say a word, as can anyone doubt the prisoner’s guilt?” In a different case from that locale, he declared: “I assure you, gentlemen of the jury, people from Uxbridge will steal the very teeth out of your mouth as you walk through the streets. I know it from experience.”

Sometimes Arabin seemed to be confused by the sound association of words. Think of beer-guzzling here: “Prisoner at the bar, I have no doubt of your guilt; you go into a public house and break bulk, and drink beer; and that’s what in law is called embezzlement.”

His lucidity was hardly improved when he was giving jury instructions. Imagine being on a jury hearing this charge: “If this is a concerted story, cadit quaestio, as I often say. But the witness makes no bones of it and swears positively to him. For there is a clerk with a crutch in his master’s employ. He is quite clear, and he is a great fool. For he left his cart, and he swears positively to him, and he does not come here to commit perjury. Have you any doubt about it? None! Now, what honest man could have any object in turning a horse’s head round the corner of a street? I have no opinion on the subject. The case is with you, and I shall only say that the law will not allow that to be done fraudulently which it does not sanction with violence.” Clear enough, jurors?

Not surprisingly, given the evidence you’ve already seen, Arabin was the all-time champion of judicial illogic:

  • “If ever there was a case of clearer evidence than this of persons acting together, this case is that case.”
  • “I cannot suggest a doubt: She goes into a shop, and looks at several things, and purchases nothing; that always indicates some guilt.”
  • “Prisoner, I will give you a chance of redeeming a character that you have irretrievably lost.”
  • “My good man, hold your tongue and answer the question.”

How do you sum up Serjeant Arabin? Fortunately, he did it himself, with what looks in retrospect to be a fully accurate and coherent claim: “I’ll be bound there is not such a court in the universe as this—not in the kingdom, and the whole British Empire.”

Bryan A. Garner, the president of Dallas-based LawProse Inc., is the editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of more than 20 books—most recently Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Follow on Twitter @BryanAGarner.

This article was published in the March 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title: “The Incoherence of Serjeant Arabin: A look back at the nonsensical pronouncements from the all-time champion of judicial illogic.”

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