Thursday, June 19, 2014
Nathaniel Zelinsky, writing over at Concurring Opinions, traces the history and subsequent use of Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase from his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. Zelinsky found earlier uses of the phrase, or very similar phrases, but writes that Alan Novak, one of Justice Stewart's clerks, "remembered the phrase emerging out of a conversation with the justice. And it was, according to Novak, Stewart who wrote the actual opinion, including the seven words." Justice Stewart did not intend "to create a widespread sensation"; indeed, news coverage at the time all but ignored the phrase--and all but ignored Jacobellis, in favor of Quantity of Books v. Kansas, another obscenity case handed down that day.
Zelinsky offers this advice:
The unintentional popularity of "I know it when I see it" should be a note of caution for legal authors in the public sphere, from jurists to commentators more generally: it is very difficult to predict in advance what will capture widespread attention among the non-legal public. . . . On the flip side, the legal corpus is full of opinions whose authors hoped would be earthquakes but whose prose was then largely ignored.