Requiem for a sentence

 Phillip Bantz, The Daily Record Newswire

North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin must be a fan of William Faulkner.

How else to explain the existence of a 153-word sentence with one lonely comma in one of his recent orders?

The line in question can be found on pages 13-14 of State v. McCulloch. It begins with “Although” and ends half an hour later with “so.”

While discussing the decision, one lawyer who was speaking on background called the sentence “one of the worst ever written.”

That may be a little harsh. The sentence is long. Very long. But paste it into Microsoft Word and grammar check doesn’t bat an eye. Not so much as a single green squiggly line calling it out for being a run-on.

That’s impressive.

But it doesn’t make the sentence any more palatable. It’s like trying to chug word stew.

“The minute you read something that you can’t understand,” actor Will Rogers famously quipped, “you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.”

Still, Ervin’s got nothing on Faulkner, who managed to have a 1,288-word sentence in his novel “Absalom, Abasalom!”

Ervin declined to discuss his epic sentence because it’s part of a decision that could be appealed, but he confirmed that he is, in fact, a Faulkner fan.

“I’ve listed ‘The Sound and the Fury’ as one of my favorite books in a number of questionnaires,” he said.

The McCulloch opinion involved a defendant who pleaded guilty to a slew of drug-related felony charges in district court in Ashe and Wilkes counties. He received suspended sentences, got into some more trouble, and then argued that the court lacked the authority to revoke his probation in some of his drug cases.

It turned out that he was right. When the Ashe County District Court took his plea it used his arrest warrant as the charging document, instead of having a bill of information filed or getting an indictment as required by law.

The mistake, which appears to be isolated, spurred Ervin and the appellate panel to vacate the Ashe probation revocation. The ruling does not prevent the state from re-prosecuting the case.

The case basically is a “hot jurisdictional mess,” according to James Markham, an assistant professor of public law at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill. Markham, being an educator, provided a helpful tip to his Twitter followers who might be interested in the ruling.

“The 153-word sentence on pp. 13-14 pretty much sums up the case,” he wrote.


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