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The Nation

Bobblehead Justices Help Journal Promote the Lighter Side of Law

July 03, 2006|Heather Gehlert | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — David Wolf's passion is constitutional law; his hobby is collecting. So when the Washington lawyer discovered a listing on EBay that would round out one of his collections, he flinched only a few times before forking over $2,100.

It was for a limited-edition 8-inch-tall poly-resin bobblehead of former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"I don't know if I can explain it," said Wolf, sounding a little giddy and a little embarrassed. "I'm obsessive."

Wolf also paid more than $800 for a John Paul Stevens bobblehead after he realized that the one he owned was missing the small ceramic golf club in the justice's right hand.

"I just like having the whole set," said Wolf, who swears that he's not crazy, only eccentric.

Wolf's fascination with Supreme Court bobbleheads is part of a small but growing craze that began in the spring of 2003, when the Green Bag -- which describes itself as "an entertaining journal of law" -- put out its Rehnquist figure.

Since then, the quarterly magazine, which publishes multi-footnoted examinations of legal issues alongside tongue-in-cheek diatribes, has produced bobbleheads of Stevens (fall 2003), Sandra Day O'Connor (2004) and Antonin Scalia (2005). Anthony M. Kennedy is due next month.

Production will continue -- most likely one a year -- in order of tenure on the high court, with David H. Souter next and continuing through the most recent appointee, Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The popularity of bobbleheads has exploded in recent years. Alexander Global Promotions of Seattle, the nation's largest manufacturer of the spring-loaded figurines, says it has produced 27 million depictions of rock stars, cartoon characters and sports icons, among others, since 1999.

But the Supreme Court figures -- also made by Alexander -- are extremely rare, and they are given away at random by Green Bag editors.

The only person guaranteed to get one is the justice depicted. Most of the justice bobbleheads are awarded to Green Bag subscribers; others go to public-interest legal groups that use them as fundraisers. (Some, like the ones Wolf snagged, end up on EBay.)

The recipients are mailed a numbered certificate with their name on it, which they must sign and return to the Green Bag office at George Mason University law school in Arlington, Va., to collect their prize. Out-of-towners can hire a George Mason law student to pick up and ship their bobble.

Why is the Green Bag doing this?

"Supreme Court justices [are] the rock stars of the judiciary," said Montgomery N. Kosma, one of the journal's two executive editors and an antitrust lawyer at a large Washington firm.

What Green Bag Editor in Chief Ross E. Davies described as one of those "in-the-shower ideas" has sparked a cult following among legal geeks.

Green Bag editors routinely get calls and e-mails asking about the figures. One shipment of 18 Scalia bobbles mysteriously disappeared last year en route from the manufacturer to Green Bag.

"We don't have the money or the CSI types to find out who's responsible," said Davies, whose day job is as an associate professor of law at George Mason.

Besides being fun, the bobbles are meant to honor the justices and showcase the humor in an otherwise serious job. As befits legal esoterica, each figurine includes detailed annotations explaining the significance of the items depicted. The annotations -- along with animated bobbles -- are also on the publication's website, www.greenbag.org/bobbleheads.

Each justice holds the volume of United States Reports (the official publication of Supreme Court action) that contains one of his or her signature opinions -- for example, Kennedy's in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the 1992 decision that upheld the 1973 abortion ruling in Roe vs. Wade, and Stevens' in Atkins vs. Virginia, which in 2002 prohibited the execution of mentally retarded criminals.

The bobbles also capture the justices' quirks or interests. Scalia's brown shoes clash with his black judicial robe to show his devil-may-care attitude toward fashion; at O'Connor's feet is a bobbleheaded polled Hereford cow, in homage to her upbringing on a cattle ranch.

The figurines, designed from photographs, have taken as many as five prototypes to get just right. They are handmade in China, where each piece is molded and then sent through eight separate paint lines.

Back in Washington, with the help of cooperative law clerks, a completed doll appears unannounced on the depicted justice's desk.

"One of the things that's underappreciated about the justices: They're a pretty good-humored bunch," Davies said. "Even though they're up on a pedestal, they haven't lost the ability to laugh at themselves."

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said that O'Connor, who retired last year, enjoyed her bobblehead, which was delivered to her on April Fool's Day in 2004.

"She said the bobblehead was a lot of fun, and she especially liked having the heifer calf by her side," Arberg said.

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