Texan-Latin at the U.S. Supreme Court

March 19th, 2013

I am slowly learning that legal words are pronounced differently in Texas. For example, voir dire is pronounced voor (rhymes with door) dyre (rhymes with tire). Do not say vwah-deer in a Texas Court. [Update: A friend who clerked in Mississippi informs me that in the 5th Circuit, it is pronounced “in bank” not “en banc.”] I was reminded of that fact today when I attended ADL’s 2013 Karen H. Susman Jurisprudence Award luncheon, which was given to Houston attorney Lynne Liberato (a graduate of the South Texas College of Law). Liberato is a pillar of the Houston community, and has given much of her time to the United Way and other great charities. Though, for readers of this blog, one of the Lynne’s “Texas” experiences at the U.S. Supreme Court was priceless.

In 1992, she argued the case of Granite State Insurance Company v. Tandy Corporation before the Supreme Court. She used the latin phrase, “uberrima fidei,” which means “utmost good faith.” This is a doctrine that governs different insurance contracts. After she used the phrase, Justice Scalia asked her “Ms. Liberato, does everyone say uberrimae fidei, or is it just people from Texas.”

Hilarity ensued. Enjoy the audio.

Unknown Speaker: Ms. Liberato, does everyone say uberrimae fidei, or is it just people from Texas.
Is that really how you say that?

I mean, everybody says it that way?

Mr. Liberato: –Judge Scalia, it’s only Italians from Texas that say it that way.

Unknown Speaker: I see.


Mr. Liberato: Sorry.

However you say those two words–

Unknown Speaker: I’m seeking information, because I’ve read them but I’ve never heard a live person say them.

I’m wondering what the–

Mr. Liberato: –Well, at the Fifth Circuit Judge Jones was kind enough to say it first before I had to, and frankly, I parroted the way she said it, and she is from Texas also, so at least from that sample… I guess I have to confess, I cannot answer your question.

The best I know, it’s uberrimae fidei.

Perfectly played. That is one of the longer laugh-lines I’ve ever heard in a Court transcript.

Update: I recently had lunch with Lynne, who gave me the after-story. After the arguments, Lynne attended a lunch with Justice Thomas at a Houston Bar Association meeting. After Justice Thomas finished his speech, he walked over to Lynne, who was also sitting on the dais, and shook her hand. Thomas congratulated her on “getting Justice Scalia.” Apparently, after the argument, at the conference, all of the Justices were ribbing Nino, telling him that it took a woman from Texas to “put him in his place.” Lynne recalled that the joke was not planned, and she wasn’t trying to be funny. General Suter always warns advocates not to try humor, but here it worked.

And the ABA Journal ran this picture. I assure you, the cartoon looks absolutely nothing like Lynne.