Kienapple to Jordan: Some Thoughts on How Cases Become Icons

It is mid-August and I am busily writing a paper on W(D). Instantly, all criminal lawyers nod their head. Just the evocation of those initials recalls the penultimate paragraph of Justice Cory where he sets out the “ideally, appropriate instructions on the issue of credibility” and imprints, in words and in precedent, the trial judge’s obligation to assess credibility as an aspect of the presumption of innocence and consistent with the burden and standard of proof in a criminal case. Unsurprisingly, this “idealism” became “the law,” so to speak, as judge’s have taken Justice Cory’s words to heart resulting in over 9000 case citations (CanLii has 8590 mentions to date, while Westlaw finds 9, 133) of W(D) since its release in 1991. The case initials, W(D), have essentially become a constant reminder of the duty of a trial judge in a criminal trial. This transformation from case to icon, is not just about words and precedent, but is about something much more profound. Those two initials, like the madeleine savoured by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past, conjures up images of the “ideal” democratic society imbued with our principles of fundamental justice, of the impartial and independent trial judge as the gatekeeper extraordinaire, and as a symbol of our “community sense of justice.” Now that’s a heavy burden for one case! Yet, I would suggest, that W(D) does not stand alone in this iconography or more accurately, semiotic state (Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics). Why or how a case attains this status is, I think, an interesting exercise for us to enter into as a different way to understand the development of law and precedent.

First, an admission. I came to this idea from some non-legal reading. Martin Kemp, an art historian and Leonardo Da Vinci “specialist,” not the Martin Kemp who was the bassist for Spandau Ballet, is an engaging and fascinating writer. His authorship glides over the orthodox as in The Oxford History of Western Art, but also wanders into the fringes in The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seaurat. His book, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, runs through various obvious choices in this image/icon transmutation such as the Coke bottle and E = mc2 but also some non-traditional icons arising from photographic imagery such as the Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Nick Ut of the Vietnamese children running from the napalm blast on June 8, 1972. Although a reading and viewing of this book reveals the many and varied pathways to “stardom” or icon status, it also highlights the element these images share: the ubiquitous-ness of the image in the public psyche. As with Proust’s madeleine, the visual becomes a short hand for an avalanche of memories, facts and emotions. This is one time when a popularity contest works.

So how does all of this translate in the dicta of case law? Those cases which, at the same time are more than their name whilst being represented by just their name, become a short hand or an abbreviation for the case itself. I say, “for the case itself” as these cases go beyond the traditional ratio decidendi of the case and can encapsulate the implementation of that rule of law such as an in-court procedure employed to engage the issues raised in the case as in the Corbett application or as in W(D) an instruction or even more evocative, as a warning such as in Vetrovec. Highest status goes to those cases which become “grammarized” as verbs. Thus, a conviction can be “Kienappled” as referenced by imminent criminal defence lawyer, Alan Gold, at page 302 of his commentary "Appeal Courts - Jurisdiction" in the 1990, Volume 32 Criminal Law Quarterly. Sometimes, grammar changes – instead of a case being “Askoved” (see Alison Hatch Cunningham, North of the 49th Parallel: The Criminal Justice System of Canada, 13 Crim. Just. 21, 27 (1998)), we now, a year after its release, speak of a case being “Jordaned” (see Kelly Egan’s article online from April 28, 2017, Justice ministers focus on five areas to cut court delays). This grammatical construction is also akin to the vocative case in Latin where language directly “calls out” a subject of a sentence, usually done with a judicious use of an exclamation mark. Finally, the “iconizing” of a decision can make what is inanimate an animated object such as the “KGB statement.”

From case to icon means that the dicta or words found in the case are compressed or squeezed into the case name and become part of the verbal lawyerly language we employ in court, in discussions within our profession, and even in the advice we give our clients. Why these particular cases have such impact and such iconic status is a difficult question to answer but may be a result of their instrumentality or even more controversially, their weaponization, as cases which lead to determinative action such as in the Corbett application or as in the Askoved case. Their staying power may also rest on their dual status as used in both the bounded space of the courtroom and the boundless space of social media. As mentioned earlier, icon status also suggests a case meaning which transcends the obvious ratio and implies meaning which touches the inner core of societal ethos.

In a broader view, this inclination for iconography is also about the significance of naming in our society or more accurately our penchant for labelling, categorizing and listing. It leads us to ponder on the purpose of this short hand – are we cutting away too deeply by employing this “sound bite” approach or are we making law more accessible by promoting seminal and pivotal cases into everyday nomenclature? This concept of legal iconography also leads to further speculation on the role of the visual in law and one of my interests in visual jurisprudence as studied by the legal visual theorists, Peter Goodrich at Cardoza School of Law and Richard Sherwin, Director of the Visual Persuasion Project at New York Law School. It finally leads us to even broader considerations of access to justice and the kind of “human-centered design” we must be open to in the next generation of law iconography.  

W(D) is a case but it is more than that but what more it is, I am determined to find out!