U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Oversees Unanimous Jury Decision About Ancient Greek Crime

Shakespeare Theatre Company's annual summer mock trial, 'Murder in Mycenae: Did Electra Hold the Knife?,' based on 'The Oresteia,' was presented June 24, 2019

On June 24, 2019, the Shakespeare Theatre Company presented its summer Mock Trial at Sidney Harman Hall (610 F Street NW). Guests were invited to hear the appellate case Murder in Mycenae: Did Electra Hold the Knife? at the “Supreme Court of Athens.”

Participants of the 2019 summer Mock Trial at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Kevin Allen.
Participants of the 2019 summer Mock Trial at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Kevin Allen.

The case was argued before a panel of judges: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presiding, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Judge Patricia A. Millett of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Stephanos Bibas of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Since 1994, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has hosted a Mock Trial based on a play from STC’s mainstage season. This case corresponds to the spring production of The Oresteia. The fictional court case poses a legal question, or questions, and the audience must act as the jury to decide the fate of the characters. The Trial aims to examine the links between classic works and contemporary legal theory in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Based upon the text of The Oresteia by Ellen McLaughlin, freely adapted from the Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus and directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn, the play chronicles a deluge of violence within the cursed House of Atreus. The Greek commander Agamemnon sacrifices his youngest daughter Iphigenia for military success. After ten years of war, grief, and rage, he returns home to Mycenae and is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. Following this House of Atreus tradition, their son Orestes, with the encouragement of his sister Electra, then murders Clytemnestra, a crime for which he is ultimately pardoned.

In the scenario for the Mock Trial, Orestes returns to Mycenae, where he is unable to focus and is plagued by nightmares and hears voices in his head. Orestes files a suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages against his sister Electra, alleging that her actions were the proximate cause of both his mental state and the damage to his reputation.

Orestes’ case was tried before a jury who found in favor of Orestes; that Electra had intentionally and tortiously taken advantage of his mental state and that this act was the proximate cause both of Orestes’ emotional distress and the damage to his reputation. Electra appealed, arguing that the jury’s verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence and contrary to law and that the award was excessive.

The Court of Appeals for the Circuit of Athens affirmed the jury’s verdict, and Electra successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of Athens for review of the following question at the summer Mock Trial: Did Electra intentionally or recklessly use Orestes as the instrumentality to murder their mother, thereby causing psychological and/or reputational damage to Orestes?

Beth D. Brinkmann. Photo by Kevin Allen.
Beth D. Brinkmann. Photo by Kevin Allen.

Counsel for the Petitioner, Electra, Beth S. Brinkmann (Covington & Burling LLP) argued that Electra, mistreated as a servant in a patriarchal society, did not have the power to influence her brother Orestes, the rightful heir to Mycenae, to murder. Brinkmann further argued that Orestes attributed his crimes to the god Apollo and that as a member of the notorious House of Atreus that his reputation could not possibly be damaged by matricide.

Counsel for the Respondent, Orestes, Elizabeth B. Wydra (Constitutional Accountability Center), countered that the court should consider how Electra took advantage of her brother’s vulnerable state and goaded him into murdering his own mother, and that his obvious distress and pain caused by his actions deserve monetary compensation, which should not be overturned.

The jury ruled unanimously in favor of Electra. Referring to the House of Atreus’ generations of misdeeds, including infanticide and cannibalism, Justice Breyer claimed that this case was better suited for family rather than appellate court, and suggested Orestes find a good therapist. Judge Millett offered that she was exhausted of men blaming women for their poor actions. Justice Ginsburg, referring to the expanded role of the Chorus in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent production of The Oresteia, and referring to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stated that all parties needed to share their stories, but to end the cycles of violence and retribution, the jury would need to intervene so that the Atreus family could begin to heal together.

The Trial was moderated by Abbe D. Lowell, STC Trustee and Chair of the Bard Association. Ted Leonsis, founder, chairman, principal partner and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, was the evening’s guest presenter, discussing Greek tragedy, democracy, and social media.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Mock Trial is sponsored by the Bard Association, STC’s affinity group for Washington’s legal community.

BENCH PARTICIPANTS
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, presiding
Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer
Judge Patricia A. Millett of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Judge Stephanos Bibas of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia