The Convict Who Sued Satan

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And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife, the judicial humorist – I've got him on the list!

–   WS Gilbert in 'The Mikado'

US District Court Judge Gerald J Weber had impressive legal credentials: degrees from Harvard and the prestigious University of Pennsylvania law school, honourable service with the US military (he was an intelligence officer during and after the Second World War), a successful law practice in his native Erie, Pennsylvania, and a background teaching law at university level. No wonder Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the federal bench in 1964. Judge Weber was used to hearing serious legal arguments. This is why we feel that he was allowed a moment of judicial levity when confronted with the case of United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff.

How to Sue the Devil, or Not

Plaintiff, alleging jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 241, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 prays for leave to file a complaint for violation of his civil rights in forma pauperis. He alleges that Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff’s downfall.

A 'jailhouse lawyer' is a prisoner who uses his copious free time to study up on the law and launch lawsuits and appeals on behalf of himself and other prison inmates. The jailhouse lawyer does this despite having no law degree or other background in the law, other than breaking it. Gerald Mayo, a 22-year-old inmate of the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, was beginning his jailhouse lawyer career in 1971. It isn't clear what he was originally in for: this case doesn't tell us. But his pro se lawsuit demonstrated élan and originality. He decided to sue Satan for messing up his life. He lodged his suit in federal court, and in forma pauperis, meaning that he didn't have any money and the court would have to bear the expense. The suit landed in Judge Weber's lap, and entered legal history. Don't believe us? It's listed in LexisNexis, the go-to legal search engine in the US.

The Decision, and Its Precedents

Judge Weber's refusal to hear the case rested on sound legal reasoning.

  1. The question of whether the Court could actually do anything about Satan.
    Even if plaintiff’s complaint reveals a prima facie recital of the infringement of the civil rights of a citizen of the United States, the Court has serious doubts that the complaint reveals a cause of action upon which relief can be granted by the court.

  2. The knotty problem of jurisdiction.
    The complaint contains no allegation of residence in this district. While the official reports disclose no case where this defendant has appeared as defendant there is an unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire where this defendant filed an action of mortgage foreclosure as plaintiff. The defendant in that action was represented by the preeminent advocate of that day, and raised the defense that the plaintiff was a foreign prince with no standing to sue in an American Court. This defense was overcome by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whether or not this would raise an estoppel1 in the present case we are unable to determine at this time.

    The jurisdictional precedent Judge Weber refers to here, his 'unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire', is Stephen Vincent Benet's short story, 'The Devil and Daniel Webster'. That classic story, which used to be read in US schools, describes a lawsuit between Satan and a Yankee farmer trying to get out of his deal with the devil, with the help of New England's most famous lawyer. Daniel Webster has to try the case in front of a jury made up of infamous Americans brought in from hell: Benedict Arnold was busy, but, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and Simon Girty were available. The judge is John Hathorne, from the Salem witchcraft trials. Spoiler alert: Webster wins, not on law, but on eloquence. The devil loses due to jury nullification2.

  3. The question of whether the complaint meets the standards for a class action suit. The judge thinks it probably does, though Gerald Mayo may not be the best representative of the class.
    It appears to meet the requirements of Fed.R. of Civ.P. 23 that the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, there are questions of law and fact common to the class, and the claims of the representative party is typical of the claims of the class. We cannot now determine if the representative party will fairly protect the interests of the class.
  4. The problem of serving papers on the defendant. (If they're going to sue the devil, the US Marshals have to find him first.)
    We note that the plaintiff has failed to include with his complaint the required form of instructions for the United States Marshal for directions as to service of process.

Judge Weber concludes:

For the foregoing reasons we must exercise our discretion to refuse the prayer of plaintiff to proceed in forma pauperis.

It is ordered that the complaint be given a miscellaneous docket number and leave to proceed in forma pauperis be denied.

In other words, Gerald Mayo probably could sue the devil in a US court –   if he could find him to serve papers on, and if he would pay the court costs himself.

Interestingly, the question of estoppel might hinge on whether a court accepted 'The Devil and Daniel Webster' as evidence that Satan is a US citizen.

What Happened Next?

What happened next is obvious: the lawsuit didn't go anywhere. Neither did Gerald Mayo, apparently: the next year, he appears to have been involved in a prison riot, a not uncommon occurrence in this notoriously unpleasant prison3. Mayo was convicted by a jury of four counts of assault by prisoner, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of participating in a riot. He lost his appeal against the sentence, and remained in prison.

Gerald Mayo may have had some success as a jailhouse lawyer, however: the group he joined in the early 1970s, called the Imprisoned Citizens Union, sued then-governor Milton Shapp for amelioration of the conditions in Pennsylvania state prisons. Apparently, some relief was granted by the courts, although not all of the court's conditions were finally met. In 1998, the prison system successfully ended the lawsuits in Imprisoned Citizens Union v. Shapp, 11 F. Supp. 2d 586 (E.D. Pa. 1998).

Judge Weber may have the final word, though: according to the US District Court's website, there is 'a legend that Judge Weber’s ghost roams the 4th floor at the federal courthouse late at night in a black robe causing elevators to open and cold air to "swish" past workers and leaves a trail of cigar smoke.' Perhaps this is another example of judicial humour.

1'Estoppel' is the legal rule that prevents someone from asserting something in court as true, when they've already established in a court that the opposite is true.2Jury nullification is called a 'perverse verdict' in the UK. It is one where the jury decides a case against the evidence because they disagree with the legal outcome.3Western State Penitentiary, the first prison west of the Atlantic Plain, housed prisoners of war during the US Civil War. It wasn't closed until 2017.

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