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U.S. justices play Shakespeare tragedy for laughs

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday evening sought laughs rather than legal clarity as they weighed a tragic case concerning a despotic Roman general and his overbearing mother.

The three justices were taking part in a mock trial at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre based on William Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," a bleak tragedy set in ancient Rome that is currently being staged at the theater.

It's an annual tradition for justices to participate in the event.

This year, they were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Samuel Alito and four appeals court judges.

In the case, prominent Washington lawyers Lisa Blatt and Seth Waxman represented a British-style tabloid newspaper and Coriolanus' estate respectively. The estate sought damages for the newspaper's attacks on the general.

The court ruled in favor of the newspaper. The margin was 5-2 in the fictitious libel case based on the play, with Ginsburg and the appeals judges in the majority and Breyer and Alito dissenting.

Breyer had his right arm in a sling, still recovering from a bicycle accident last month in which he fractured his shoulder.

All three justices entered into the lighthearted spirit of the event. Suggesting that life imitates art, Alito joked that when he reads the newspaper, "It's impossible to separate facts from fiction."

Breyer, meanwhile, observed that the only Latin he could remember from school was: "O ubi, o ubi est meus sub ubi," which, when translated into English, sounds to a schoolboy's ears like "Oh where, oh where is my underwear."

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

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