Judge Merrick Garland’s opening lines of an opinion Tuesday shouldn’t have startled any reader: “In 1992, Vincent Gambini taught a master class in cross-examination. Trial counsel for the National Labor Relations Board and the National Union of Healthcare Workers apparently paid attention.”
Garland’s footnote gives it away but, of course, Gambini is the namesake in the classic 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny.” Joe Pesci starred as Vinny the lawyer, defending a cousin and a friend who are falsely accused of murder in Alabama (although the movie was filmed in and around Monticello, Georgia).
Garland, the chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was particularly struck by Vinny’s masterful cross-examination of a prosecution witness, which you can watch here:
Garland’s citation to “My Cousin Vinny”—in a ruling that was a win for federal labor regulators—marked the latest instance of a judge who found some moment so compelling as to make note of it in a court ruling. A Wall Street Journal examination in 2017 found judges had cited “My Cousin Vinny” more than two dozen times.
“There are a lot of legal movies that are just kind of nonsense,” Raffi Melkonian, an appellate litigator at Houston’s Wright Close & Barger, told the Journal. “For whatever reason, ‘My Cousin Vinny’ feels real.”
Here are some other times—by no means exhaustive—where federal appeals judges have given a nod to Vinny.
>> Sixth Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, writing last September in the case Doe v. Baum: “Even popular culture recognizes the importance of cross-examination. See A Few Good Men (Castle Rock Entertainment 1992) (depicting one of the most memorable examples of cross-examination in American cinema); My Cousin Vinny (Palo Vista Productions et al. 1992) (demonstrating that cross-examination can both undermine and establish the credibility of witnesses).”
>> Then-D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, writing in March 2017 in the case United States v. Bronstein: “And yet, in a coordinated fashion, each appellee is alleged to have directed a variation of the same message to the Justices of the Supreme Court and the assembled audience. Their coordinated standing, facing the bench, and messaging indicate the appellees were addressing the court and gallery. Cf. MY COUSIN VINNY (20th Century Fox 1992) (Judge Chamberlain Haller: ‘Don’t talk to me sitting in that chair! … When you’re addressing this court, you’ll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice.’). Viewed objectively, these alleged acts could easily be considered speeches to a public assembly that tended to disrupt the court’s operations—conduct covered by §6134’s prohibition of ‘make a harangue or oration.’”
>> Second Circuit Judge Peter Hall, writing in July 2016 in the case Walsh v. New York City Housing Authority: “To use the apt metaphor coined by Vincent Gambini (one that seems only fitting given the facts of this particular case), a plaintiff may satisfy her burden by building a wall out of individual evidentiary bricks.” In dissent, Judge Debra Ann Livingston took on Hall, writing: “The majority invokes the film My Cousin Vinny in its discussion of the role of circumstantial evidence in Title VII cases. The film might more aptly be cited for the proposition that some individuals, such as Mona Lisa Vito, Vinny Gambino’s fiancée who gained expertise in automotives and auto mechanics working in her father’s garage, are well qualified despite a lack of formal credentials.”
>> Seventh Circuit Judge William Bauer, writing in September 2009, in the case Sutherland v. Gaetz: “Defense counsel’s obstinate behavior and the court’s exasperation with it may be reminiscent for some of the contentious interplay between the fictional characters of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini and Judge Chamberlain Haller in the film ‘My Cousin Vinnie.’ On three separate occasions during trial, Judge Haller held Vinnie in contempt and, each time, made him spend the overnight recess in jail. However, unlike defense counsel here, Vinnie, a New York lawyer struggling to adapt to the rural-Alabama trial setting, found that the accommodations in jail offered the best night’s sleep he could find away from the Big Apple. Upon his return to the courtroom, a revitalized Vinnie dismantled the credibility of the State’s circumstantial case and cleared the names of the ‘two yutes’ he represented. (And again we see that life follows art.)”
>> Seventh Circuit Judge William Bauer, writing in April 1997 in the case Bass v. Stolper Koritzinsky Brewster Neider: “Theft, like fraud, is a specific intent crime. To obtain a conviction, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to deprive the owner permanently of some property. Someone who appears to have shoplifted may then, of course, have a valid defense—that he did not act with the requisite intent. One who walks out of a country store with a can of tunafish in his pocket that he forgot to pay for has not committed theft. The facts, however, may have terrible consequences before the defense can be raised. See, e.g., My Cousin Vinny, at Local Blockbuster Video Rental Store.”