May 16, 2014

Is Judge Denise Cote “publishing’s most unlikely scourge”?



Judge Denise Cote quoted Emily Dickinson in her judicial opinion during the ebook case.

That’s not Judge Denise Cote, it’s Emily Dickinson!

Judge Denise Cote has “chilled the book business” with her sanctions against Apple, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, Harper Collins,  and Penguin, writes David Margolick, in a new profile in Vanity Fair.

A well-respected judge who is described in the profile as caring deeply for for her clerks—“marrying them off… and guiding their careers”—Justice Cote is a 1968 graduate of St. Mary’s College and received an honorary degree at my graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in 2006 for her work on cases “cases involving sex discrimination suits, Wall Street, police brutality and immigrant smuggling.”

But eight years later, will her legacy be remembered for effectively defending a evil internet behemoth and destroying book publishing culture as we know it?

Margolick says that Judge Cote is ironically  “one of the most voracious readers in the federal judiciary.” She belongs to multiple book clubs—“One is devoted to Shakespeare, a second to fiction, a third to biographies.” Before her career in law, she taught American history, black history, and world history at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. And with these bookish interests, Margolick suggests that one can “detect in her at times a certain discomfort, or defensiveness, or even sadness, at having become publishing’s most unlikely scourge.”

The Vanity Fair profile concludes by highlighting an unusual section of Judge Cote’s opinion on the ebook settlement handed down in 2012. Judge Cote wrote that the range of comments submitted opposing her proposed judgement had led her to feel that “hesitation is clearly appropriate in this case,” and that “there can be no denying the importance of books and authors int he quest for human knowledge and creative expression, and in supporting a free and prosperous society.” And suddenly, she quotes an Emily Dickinson poem:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.

Is Judge Cote saying that she thinks the “toll” publishers place on books is preventing the poorest citizens among us to buy and read books? Or, could she rather intend for Dickinson’s war imagery—words like  frigate, or warship, and courser, or a horse riding into battle—to indicate that, in the publishers’  fight for the survival of the printed book, she falls on the side of a monopolist’s insubstantial ebooks for a fraction of the cost …?


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.