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Coriolanus the Subject of This Year’s Shakespeare Theatre Company Mock Trial

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once again presided.

Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Samuel Alito, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s mock trial. Photograph by Kevin Allen.

He’s a former US solicitor general and one of Washington’s most skilled lawyers, but even Seth Waxman ran into difficulty representing his latest client—a politician with a serious image problem.

While on the campaign trail, this candidate proved incapable of connecting with common, everyday people, earning a reputation as an elitist with no regard for the working class. He is, in fact, such a diva that he goes by a single name: Coriolanus. You may have read about him in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name, or even watched his story unfold onstage during the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of the play.

If you thought we were describing someone else, don’t worry, it’s an easy mistake to make—had the technology been available in BC times, Coriolanus is undoubtedly the kind of guy who would’ve commissioned a car elevator for his beach house.

Given the electorate’s widespread distaste for him, it’s easy to see why Waxman faced an uphill battle Monday evening when he argued at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual mock trial that Coriolanus’s downfall was the result not of his own actions, but of defamatory coverage by the ancient Roman newspaper The Latin Tribune.

Coriolanus’s story goes like this: He returned to Rome a war hero and began his bid for consul, an office in the city’s nascent government. He was known for his anti-populist views, such as his belief that the people didn’t have the right to set their own grain prices. After getting driven into exile by his political rivals, he allied himself with one of Rome’s enemies, Aufidius. But just as he was about to attack his former city, his mother, Volumnia, convinced him to make peace—a foolish choice as it turns out, since Aufidius’s cohorts then killed Coriolanus. Got all that?

Washington legal luminaries look forward to the mock trial every spring. As is tradition at the event, a panel of some of the nation’s most esteemed judges assembled to hear the case in front of a packed house at Sidney Harman Hall. Supreme Court justice and Shakespeare lover Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided, as she has in every mock trial since 2003. She was joined by justices Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer, and judges from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit Merrick Garland, Douglas Ginsburg, Brett Kavanaugh, and David Tatel. It was clear the jurists had followed another Shakespeare Theatre Company tradition—coming well prepared with clever one-liners and references to current events to sprinkle throughout the proceedings.

While Waxman made his case, Judge Garland brought up a rumor he’d heard about a video of Coriolanus, in which the candidate allegedly said “47 percent of the people would vote against him because all they wanted was free corn.” Waxman, a partner at WilmerHale, appeared confused at the mention of “video,” reminding Garland, “We are in an era of papyrus.”

Lisa Blatt, a partner at Arnold & Porter and a top Supreme Court lawyer, mounted a strong defense of The Latin Tribune, arguing that it certainly wasn’t her client’s fault that Coriolanus was so disdained. In act one, she reminded the judges, Coriolanus said he wanted to “skewer people with his lance.” She added that the National Lance Association had filed a brief in the case. “Their argument that lances don’t kill people, people kill people only strengthens our case,” she said, getting a good laugh from the audience.

But in the end, it wasn’t the lawyering that decided the dispute—it was a technicality. Justice Ginsburg delivered the majority’s opinion: “We have to begin at the beginning. And at the beginning is Lady Volumnia, who is responsible for all of this,” she said. Because Coriolanus’s mother—who represented her dead son’s estate at the trial—arguably caused his assasination, Ginsburg explained that Volumnia is legally barred from profiting from his death. Thus, she had no right to sue the Tribune on behalf of her son in the first place.

As Blatt had quipped earlier in the evening, the case really was “much ado about nothing.”

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