Magic Images in Law

Christine A. Corcos

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge - Paul M. Hebert Law Center

August 6, 2010


Are the “magic words” used in law a form of misdirection and ritual? Is much of required courtroom behavior simply ritual and incantation? When judges use “magic words” or “magic formulas” in writing opinions, are they engaging in the same behavior? Do the words themselves “mean” anything? Or are they simply a distraction, serving as misdirection, and perhaps because of our insistence on them, denying due process to the clients of those who negligently omit them? Do the wizards behind the curtain manipulate the system in some unfathomable way for their purposes while sending the rest of us on self-serving quests for witches’ broomsticks? To what extent can we compare the use of magic to the practice of law, and make magical analogies to legal practice? To what extent are such comparisons helpful and/or interesting? When parties, jurors, judges, lawyers, witnesses, and onlookers leave the courtroom, are what “magic words” and ritual leave behind more “real” than what is on a magician’s stage?

Some magicians, like Penn and Teller, have a particular interest in the legal meaning of the magical act. When Penn Jillette says that the difference between “burning a flag” on the Las Vegas stage and then restoring it is fiction, and that entertainment generally is fiction, he has a point. But the act is still “real.” Penn and Teller “really” make the flag vanish. When Penn discusses the law, and the Supreme Court opinion, that protects the act, he takes us further along a journey into discussion of the comparison between magic and law. Such “burning” and restoring is a magic trick, but it is also real, in the sense that it is speech, just as the real burning of an American flag may also be speech.

Keywords: law, magic, First Amendment, entertainment, popular culture, rhetoric, speech, linguistics, Penn & Teller, magic, magicians, lawyers, judges, television

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Date posted: September 16, 2010 ; Last revised: July 29, 2011

Suggested Citation

Corcos, Christine A., Magic Images in Law (August 6, 2010). EXPLORATIONS ON COURTROOM DISCOURSE, Anne Wagner, ed., Ashgate, 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1654607

Contact Information

Christine A. Corcos (Contact Author)
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge - Paul M. Hebert Law Center ( email )
440 Law Center Building
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
United States
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