September 01, 2011 Judicial Reasoning

An Interview with the Other Holmes

By Michael B. Hyman

As I placed my final brushstrokes on a memorandum opinion striking the affidavit of an expert witness, a Professor Moriarty, the phone rang. The chief judge’s office wanted me to meet with a visitor from London. I was told the man’s dress was a bit peculiar for late June—a russet brown and green plaid cape lined in red silk with slits at each side for arms and a matching wool hat, featuring a visor at the front and back and earflaps.

He arrived in my chambers a few minutes later, his right hand outstretched to me, holding in his left a large magnifying glass and curly black clay pipe, well chewed at the tip. 

My name is Sherlock Holmes. Possibly it is familiar to you. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.

“Of course. You are the renowned consulting detective admired for your methodical thinking, fly-trap mind, and meticulous observation.”

I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is mere appendage.

“Mr. Holmes, sir, the name is Hyman, not Watson.”

You’ll excuse me, I trust, said Holmes, as he launched into a series of questions probing me about the use of expert witnesses in criminal trials, whether Basil Rathbone played him better than Robert Downey, Jr. and where he might find English pipe tobacco, an inquiry that stumped me and caused Holmes to mutter under his breath, I am lost without my Boswell.

Ask me what you like, he said, regaining his composure. “Tell me about detective work.”

They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. It’s  a  very bad  definition, but it  does apply  to detective work. I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson or Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths—which, by the way, is their normal state—the matter is laid  before me. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You (Americans) have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.

“Americans seem obsessed with private eyes.”

Pshaw, my dear fellow, what does the public, the great unobservant public, who could hardly tell a weaver by his tooth or a compositor by his left thumb, care about the finer shades of analysis and deduction? “Since you brought it up, would you be kind enough to share some of your choicest secrets about analysis and deduction?”

It has always been my habit to hide none of my methods, either from my friend Watson or from anyone who might take an intelligent interest in them. Holmes became animated, almost rhapsodic, as he responded.

It is of the first importance not to allow our judgment to be biased by personal qualities. Next, the temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession. It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

He gazed with apparent interest at the ceiling, looked at me through his magnifying glass, and continued.

Data! Data! Data! I can make no bricks without clay! Each fact is suggestive in itself. Together they have a cumulative force, he said, slowly surveying every single object on my desk, the walls, and shelves as if each was a rare artifact on display.

It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.

Holmes puffed on his empty pipe. Another thing, never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details. It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

The smallest point may be the most essential.

“You are proficient at drawing inferences from facts.” It is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. One true  inference invariably suggests others. My inferences are my own, but I shall be answerable for the facts.

“Give me an example of an obstacle that you encounter from time to time.”

Principal difficulty can lay in the fact of there being too much evidence. What was vital was overlaid and hidden by what was irrelevant. We must look for consistency. Where there is a want of it we must suspect deception.

“Do you ever guess?”

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. A clever counsel would tear it all to rags. And I presume nothing.

“Mr. Holmes, no wonder criminals fear you and your clients, the police, and the public revere you.”

It is my business to know things. Perhaps I have trained myself to see what others overlook. I put myself in the person’s place and, having first gauged his or her intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances. What one man or woman can invent another can discover.

“To me good legal work is like good detective work— both require logical, dispassionate, and unemotional thinking.”

You are an enthusiast in your line of thought, I perceive, sir, as I am in mine. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance money, and the most repellant man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.

If I have one quality upon earth, it is common sense. For example, I know that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretations.

“What are your thoughts on circumstantial evidence?” Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to  one  thing,  but  if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.

“How has your friend Watson helped you in your work?”

Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.

“So true. Lawyers should do more of that. We all need our Watsons. How would you describe the ideal reasoner?” Sherlock Holmes closed his eyes and placed his elbows upon the arms of his chair, with his fingertips together. The ideal reasoner, he remarked, would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results that would follow from it.

“And that takes a heightened sense of observation?”

You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles. The world is full of obvious things that nobody by any chance ever observes. But I believe as well that there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Holmes shook his head. There is an appalling directness about your questions, Watson.

“Excuse me, but you called me Watson again.”

What has become of any brains that God has given me? Don’t be hurt, my dear fellow. You know that I am quite impersonal.

“No offense taken. I see it is almost time for you to move on to meet another judge. Any final thoughts you wish to impart?”

The law is what we live with. Justice is sometimes harder to achieve.

“But, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, how do we achieve justice?”

Elementary, my dear Judge. It’s every judge’s business to see justice done. 

Michael B. Hyman, editor in chief of the CBA Record, the flagship publication of the Chicago Bar Associa- tion, is a judge for the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. This column originally appeared in the “Editor’s Briefcase” of the June–July 2011 CBA Record.