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A Criminal Waste of Time
A book by Justice William W. Bedsworth
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There are 63 Journal Items on 8 page(s) and you are on page number 5

Democracy: Somebody Put a Tent Over This Circus

Molly Ivins, bless her indomitable lefty heart, understands government.  She says, "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet.  It requires a certain relish for confusion."

Ain't that the truth.  And, Lord knows, here in the United States of Amazing, we got relish, we got mustard, we got all the democratic condiments you could possibly imagine on your governmental hot dogs.1

So we would seem to be the ideal place to be exporting democracy.  We not only lead the league in confusion relish - no one who has ever tried to sort out a California ballot initiative could possible doubt our ability to embrace confusion - but we also have way more democracy than we can use.  I mean, we got little leaguers picking teams captains, we got seventh graders picking class treasurers, we got club-footed beer-drinkers voting on televised ballroom dance contests, for crying out loud.  We are so thoroughly saturated in democracy that every so often some of it precipitates out in the form of little electoral kidney stones.2

But recent events have caused me to begin to question our basic aptitude for democracy.  Turns out we may no be the sharpest tools in the democratic shed.

Think about it.  We've been democratizing for over two hundred years now and - near as I can determine - nobody not named Kennedy or Roosevelt or Bush or Clinton is entirely happy with the system we've developed.  A recent poll showed that most Americans think the governor is a jerk.  Not our governor - any governor.

Now I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth; in the immortal words of Chico Escuela, democracy "been bery, bery good to me."  I am living proof that in a democracy, even those of limited native ability can go far.  If you read this column regularly3 you know beyond peradventure that the race is no always to the swift; sometimes it goes to whoever shows up.  Me, for example.  So I'm a big fan of American democracy.

But maybe we became the greatest democracy in the history of the cosmos not because the Founding Dudes4 were geniuses but because there was so little competition.5  And now that we've exporting democracy, we're finding out our monopoly on it may have made us a little less innovative than we could have been.

In Mexico, for example, they close the bars and liquor stores for a few days when elections roll around.  How's that for a concept?  They actually think elections are important enough people should be sober when they vote.  Tell the truth: Do you really think Jesse Ventura could have been elected governor of Minnesota if all the bars and liquor stores had been closed?

Or take Iraq.6  My God, in terms of geologic democratic time, they've only been voting for about thirty seconds.  And yet they've already come up with that really cool purple finger thing.  Not only is it decorative and festive as all get out, but it's a great deterrent to voter fraud.  If they'd had that in Chicago in the sixties, John F. Kennedy would have been a footnote in the history of the Nixon Administration.7

But the one that really frosts me is Palestine.  Palestine!  I mean, this isn't even a country, is it?  It's an "authority."  What in the Sam Hill is an "authority?"  Is that like a port authority or a transit authority or something?

Talk about democratic Johnny-come-latelies!  These guys make banana republics look like ancient Athens.  And yet they're already kicking our butts in the democracy arena.

Here's the deal in Palestine..  The ruling Fatah parliament was voted out in Palestine's January election.  But before leaving office, the lame-duck Fatah majority passed legislation ceding more of their powers to the president - who, sonofagun, just happens to be a Fatah member.  Then they passed a new law giving him the power "to cancel laws passed by the new parliament."

As the Guinness people like to say, "Brilliant!"

So of course the new Hamas parliament is now passing legislation stripping the president of his Fatah-granted power to cancel the laws they pass.  And what will his response be?  He'll cancel it.  After all, he has the power to cancel any laws the new parliament makes.


How is it that all the Willie Browns, Lyndon Johnsons and Ev Dirksens we've turned out in 200 years haven't thought of this mind-boggling stratagem, but a bunch of tinhorn Fatah tyros were able to come up with it between the main course and dessert their first day in the Parliament cafeteria?  How can they possibly be so much better at this than we are?

Well, it just may have something to do with us having worn out our legislative synapses on state fish and license plates.  Yeah, that's right.  State fish and license plates.  We're hip deep in the big muddy in Iraq, we got folks still can't find a dry place to sleep in New Orleans, our President's response to the bird flu to to suggest we bomb the Canary Islands, and our legislators are worrying about state fish and license plates.


I read today that the State of Hawaii passed legislation making the - are you ready for this- humuhumunukunukuapuaa the official state fish.8  Honest.

Why do you think they did that?  Because they could?  Because they lost a bet to Iowa?  Because without an unpronounceable state fish name they could not makes their ports safe from terrorists?  I don't know.  Maybe they're like me:  Maybe they just get a little goofy when they're in Hawaii.

I can deal with this.  In fact, I'm rather fond of it.  It's like some sort of weird governmental Tourette's Syndrome that affects all legislatures.  Every one of them periodically succumbs to the "Official State Thing" malady.  I can pretty much count on stupid state animals and plants and rocks and such like to provide me a column every few years.

But Hawaii took it to a new low.  They sunsetted the state fish designation.  When the law passed they provided an expiration date five years hence.  I can only assume this was because they knew they'd need another COLOSSAL TIME WASTER five years down the road.

So the humuhumuwhatchamacallit was only the state fish for five years.  Turns out it wasn't so much a designation as a term of office.  And now - much to the chagrin of the legislature - which is now deal with the new legislation to RE-DESIGNATE the damn thing - it's expired.9

But what I like best about this little exercise?  The legislation expired in 1989.  1989.  In 17 years, nobody knew or cared that little Mister... Fish... has lost his government job.  But now, all of a sudden, it's absolutely essential that we have legislation to give it back to him.  Immediately!

And we wonder why we're behind the Palestinians.

Oh, and the license plates?  That's even better.  According to the Associated Press, "An Idaho state lawmakers wants to peel Idaho's standard license plate of the legend 'Famous Potatoes' in a battle over whether the lowly spud should symbolize a state whose major export is high technology.10

Well, now that certainly sounds like a worthwhile cause.  Forget world hunger, forget peace in our time, forget democracy for Iraqis - let's go for "more representative license plates."  Now that's a hill to die on.

No kidding, they're gearing up in Idaho11 to do battle over whether the "Famous Potatoes" thing "no longer has resonance" for the state.  "Resonance."  That's State Senator Hal Bunderson's word.  He's the guy who noticed the potatoes weren't resonating.  You wanna know why we can't find weapons of mass destruction?  Because we're too busy listening for potatoes resonating.

I don't know what a resonant potato sounds like.  Much as I love potatoes, I've probably eaten bushels of non-resonant ones without realizing.  But I know what good lobbying looks like.  and I'm betting Senator Bunderson's suggested replacement for "Famous Potatoes" is probably something like "Famous Technology" or "Famous Livestock" or "Famous Something Else Whose Lobbyist Knows Me."

I just hope this whole money-wasting boondoggle works out just as well for him as it did for Wisconsin.  Wisconsin actually started a statewide contest to come up with a new motto for their license plate.  The governor cancelled it when University of Wisconsin students got the state all fired up for a parody of New Hampshire's "Life Free or Die" motto.  Wisconsin abandoned the contest rather than take the chance that "Eat Cheese or Die" would go on their plates.

Be careful what you wish for Senator Bunderson: In a democracy - even an old, unimaginative democracy like ours - you just may get it.

1  And we got a ton of those, too.  back

2  See, Bush v. Gore (2000) 531 U.S., 98.  back

3  This would be known as an admission against interest; don't do it.  back

4  I now have eastern readers and they love it when we talk like this.  back

5  Yeah, I know the French tried democracy.  They churned out republics like they were chicken pot pies.  but that doesn't mean they were good at it.  They also tried automobile manufacturing; you ever drive a Renault?  back

6  We'll throw in Cheney's shotgun as part of the deal.  back

7  Either that or everybody in town would have been walking around with their hands in their pockets of three days.  back

8  Make up your own footnote.  No way I'm typing that name again.  back

9  The legislation, that is, not the fish.  I've really gotta work more on my syntax.  back

10  Whaddya suppose passes for high technology in Idaho? Mr. Potato Head?  back

11  Do they have gears in Idaho?  back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Tuesday, April 04, 2006 at 13:39 Comments Closed

Greetings From the Ragweed Patch

Wanna see my picture on the cover
Wanna buy five copies for my mother
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of the Rollin' Stone

My face on the cover of the [Orange County Lawyer] magazine.

I'm pretty sure that's one of the four signs of the Apocalypse. War, famine, pestilence, and Bedsworth's face on the cover of a magazine.

I told them this wasn't a good idea. It's probably the worst editorial decision they've made in 25 years. But they didn't listen.

Obviously, they have no criminal lawyers on the staff. Criminal lawyers would have explained the phrase "cruel and unusual punishment" to them. I mean, this could result in the first non-prison class action Eighth Amendment case in the history of the state.

I am, after all, a man who was so unimpressed with his face that he covered it with a beard. That's like planting ragweed because you don't want bare ground. And now the ragweed patch is on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. That's just wrong.

I've never felt the public service aspect of my beard was fully appreciated. Maybe this picture will change that.

It won't change the column, though. If you thought I was insufferably vain and self-important before, just imagine how I'm going to be now that the fact I've been publishing this stuff for 25 years has been treated as a landmark instead of a vector control problem.

But the truth is, I'm not able to change the column. I'm no more in control of what shows up on these pages than I am of my eighteen-year-old daughter. Writing ACWOS is a lot like being a bull-rider: Sit down, hang on, and hope like hell you get out of it in one piece.

I assure you I'm as mystified by what comes out of my head as you are. I don't write this because I want to. I write it because I have to. I'm hostage to a bad gene that has doomed me to some kind of bizarre literary Tourette's Syndrome.

I sit down in front of the word processor not because I think the world is gonna be better when I'm done. Not because I think I have something important to say. Not even because I think I'm gonna be funny. I never feel that way.

On my good days, I flatter myself that some people are gonna walk away thinking, "Weird, but kinda funny." That's my goal; that's as good as it ever gets for me.

And I sit down to write every month fully expecting to fall short of even that modest aim. What's more, I'm quite sure there is a growing number of people who think I do fail people who read about halfway, then turn the page, thinking, "What do people see in him? Why do they keep running this stuff?" I can sympathize with those people.

But I have to write it.

It's addictive behavior. I know that because I've tried to stop several times, only to find out I wasn't capable of it. This will come as bad news to those of you who were hoping my own pride would eventually cause me to stop.2

The column is syndicated now.3   Wherever it appears, it runs with the explanation that I'm an appellate court judge and write ACWOS to get it out of my system. And that's the absolute truth.

I spent fifteen years as a prosecutor, and now I've spent twenty as a judge. Great jobs, and I've loved them. But joyless. Largely humorless. There's a great deal of reward, a great deal of satisfaction, an amazing amount of self-validation in them, but not much laughter.

And, it turns out, I need laughter. I can't put it in my opinions. Nobody wants to read, "The three-million dollar judgment in your favor is reversed and you have to go back and start all over, but did you hear the one about the nun and the rabbi and the sailor?" And there's just nothing funny about, "We're affirming the judgment of conviction in your case."

So I have to get it out of my system elsewhere. I feel a little guilty that I enlist the aid of so many others in this therapy. Syndication and the internet have enabled me to impose myself on people I never could have reached 25 years ago. When I started, I thought you were going to be my only victims.

But now I've turned into some kind of nationwide journalistic Hannibal Lecter. American Lawyer Media, Inc. makes me available to editors in a dozen different markets, and my stuff shows up — usually unannounced and always uninvited — from San Francisco to Hartford (mostly after national holidays that involve a lot of drinking). I get as many emails and letters from Fulton County, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. as I do from Orange County.4

I now maintain sporadic but enjoyable correspondence with a New York Times writer, a couple of federal circuit judges, Jesse Choper, a Norwegian law professor, past-presidents of a half-dozen state bars, and a loyal cadre of regular readers kind enough to sprinkle a little email nourishment on my ego fairly regularly. That's cool.

I got kudos from the Times of London two years ago. Being able to show your mom kind words from the Times of London? That's very cool.

The column has twice won awards from the California Newspapers Association. That's a little frightening, and augurs ill for American journalism, but it's still cool.5

Because of the column, I've picked up speaking engagements all over the country from folks who haven't figured out that if I could speak, I wouldn't need to write. Because I was speaking there, I got to watch the swearing-in of the first African-American president of the Alabama State Bar. How cool is that?

I got to play Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a U. S. Open course, designed by the Marquis de Sade on his only known visit to the United States. The course chewed me up and spit me out, but it was cool. I got to play The Experience at Koele, flat-out the best golf course I've ever seen.

I got to spend a night in Deadwood, South Dakota, before it was an HBO series. I got to visit the Homestead Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, and sit in the team treasurer's box at a Seattle Mariners' game. I ate dinner with the mayor of Tulsa and threw down tequila from a plastic cup in Snake Stabler's Florabama Lounge and Package Store in Pensacola, Florida.

I got to swim in the Gulf of Mexico and wade around Waikiki. I've stayed in hotels that would never have allowed me through the door if they'd read the column. I thought all of it was very cool.

I might never have become a judge without the column. Both major political parties had rejected me for a municipal court appointment. I was way too conservative for Jerry Brown and then way too liberal for George Deukmejian. When I finally decided to run for an empty Superior Court seat6 in 1986, lots of nice people I'd never met helped out — many explaining they felt they'd connected to me through the column.7

So I've got a lot to thank you for today.

For 25 years, you've allowed me to waste this space. In essence, you've sat and listened while I lay on the couch and tried — with varying degrees of success — to work out my issues. You let me pick my subjects, come in anywhere around 1,500 words, and include those damnable footnotes that drive the printers crazy. You gave me time off for the brain surgery and the heart surgery, and generally kept to yourself your suggestions that the operations might not have been entirely successful.

You ignored my mistakes, tolerated my similes, struggled through my syntax, and just generally forgave me my trespasses while I had one helluva good time.

You said nice things about me that got me the best job in the legal system.

And you put my picture on the cover of your magazine. No, it ain't The Rolling Stone, but I like my readership better than theirs. Come to think of it, I like my readership better than anybody's.

1 Shel Silverstein, "Cover of the Rolling Stone," 1972 (Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show).back

2 I think this issue of the magazine indicates there is very little hope the Bar Association will come to its senses and cancel me, so self-immolation was pretty much your last hope.back

3 If the picture didn't convince you the end of the world is nigh, that sure ought to.back

4 For some reason, I do well in the South. I figure I reinforce what they always thought about Californians, and I'm far enough away not to be dangerous if I get my hands on a weapon. That makes me good reading even if the content is a little questionable.back

5 And it came with a free meal.back

6 A decision prompted not by ego, but by financial reality: It was explained to me that I couldn't afford to run for municipal court. You see, in a small municipal court district, personal contact with the voters would be important, so I'd have to take a leave of absence from the D. A.'s Office and go knock on doors during the campaign. But in a countywide superior court election there were so many voters that knocking on doors would have virtually no impact, so I could keep working my day job. Amazing.back

7 I've always assumed it was the same instinct that causes you to pick up a dog that's been hit by a car and take him to the vet: He's obviously in need of help, and you can't very well just leave him there.back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Friday, March 10, 2006 at 12:01 Comments Closed

The Internet is a Big Waste of Time

The Internet is a time sink. And I stand before it daily, pouring time down the drain like it was bathtub gin, and Eliot Ness was pounding at the door.

Partly, I'm online by necessity. Our court presently occupies two buildings, and the separation sometimes makes e-mail the best way to discuss a case with a colleague six blocks away.

Partly, it's convenience. I do most of my Christmas shopping online, as well as much of my obscure-reference-verification for opinions and this column.

Then there's the other 98 percent. The bathtub gin.

This ranges from eBay to fantasy baseball. It's guilty pleasure stuff. I like to think of it as time I would otherwise waste at the driving range or the movies, but I freely recognize it as empty intellectual calories: candy bars for the brain.

Often, the first thing I do after work is check to see how my team is doing. East Coast games are often over by the time I get home, so I can get a pretty good idea whether it's a good day or a bad day before I sit down to dinner. I can be a delightful dinner companion if one of my players has hit for the cycle or pitched a shutout.

My wife teases me about it. She refers to the fantasy baseball addiction as "baseball porn," and threatened to out me until she learned Justice Fybel also has a team and that we both pick Justice Aronson's brain for baseball dirt. Then she just threw up her hands and returned to her 26th viewing of the six-hour version of "Pride and Prejudice."

Unfortunately, my daytime Internet usage is much less satisfying. The state has this antiquated notion I should be working while they pay me, so except for the occasional joke or some poor soul confessing to having read my column, most of my e-mail consists of my colleagues commenting as kindly as possible on my sieve-like logic.

Not that these aren't entertaining in their own right. There are, after all, only eight of us, and we're going to be working with each other the rest of our lives, so they can't very well start every e-mail with "Beds, you ignorant slut," or "What, were you in a coma your entire second year of law school?" So I get some e-mails that are masterpieces of circumlocution.

Someone once said the main requirement for being a sportswriter in Chicago was knowing 50 synonyms for the word "defeat." Well, the main requirement for serving on the Court of Appeal isn't intellectual firepower or analytical savvy, it's knowing 50 synonyms for "incorrect," at least 40 of which have to sound constructive. As Tom Crosby used to say, "Being right is easy; getting another vote is hard."

I get e-mails from Justice Rylaarsdam and Justice Ikola that would make the French ambassador to Algeria proud. Having me on the court has improved the ability of all my colleagues to write gentle, collegial prose to a point probably unmatched in the history of appellate literature — a benefit I'm sometimes not sure they fully appreciate.

But even I get tired of being told that while brilliant and insightful and wearing really-great-looking boots today, I seem to have missed the point. Even I grow weary of reading that my concluding sentence is impeccable except that it seems to have left out the word "not," a minor typo which can, of course, be easily remedied by "adjusting" the opinion 180 degrees or so.

And when that ennui gets the best of me, I open an e-mail from Nigeria.

Do you get these things? You must. E-mails that promise you a generous portion of vast sums of money hidden somewhere in Africa, in exchange for just your bank account number, your social, and a few thousand in cash? I've gotten them from African princes in exile, minor officials in African ministries, daughters and sons of deposed African statesmen, honest policemen working for corrupt regimes — apparently the dark continent is awash with money in secret accounts and poor waifs who need only find some honest person in America to help them smuggle it out of the country.

Here is the actual opening of the one I got yesterday:

Good day,please excuse me because this letter might come to you as a surprise, but it is coming with the best of intentions and by the special grace of God will be of mutual benefit to bothparties involved.

You might wonder how I got your contact; I got your contact adress from net work directorywhen I was searching for a trustwothy person to contact for these transaction and after a profound search I was convinced that you will be of great assistance to me and I have no doubt of your credibility to work with me as my foreign business partner.

Meanwhile, I am Miss. Sandra Harry, the only Dauther of late Chief and Mrs Bruce Harry, my father was a Gold and Cocoa Merchant who based here! in Abidjan. My father was poisoned to death by his business associates about Two years ago, and he died in a private hospital here in Abidjan. But when he was about to die, he called me beside his sick bed and told me that he deposited the sum of Four Million Six houndred thousand united states dollars.USD($4.600,000) in abank here in Abidjan.

He made me to understand that the money was deposited with my name as the next of kin for onward transfer. He added that if he did not survive the sickness, that I should find a reliable partner in a country of my choice to appoint him as my guardian and benefitiary of the fund so that the bank will transfer thefund to his account in his country and my late father later died.

Now I will require your assistance in receiving the funds in your personal/company account for my investment, I will be gladlyofferyou 15% of the total sum for your assistance.

Please tell me you get these things, too. My colleagues insist they don't. They want me to believe Nigerian e-mails are divine punishment meted out to me for having bought into so many cockamamie legal positions over the years.3 They say even Nigerians now understand I'm the guy they want on the panel if their defense is that aliens snuck into their office and altered the contract.

I'm starting to worry they may be correct. After all, I'm also getting e-mails from people who want to sell me black market Viagra and think that all they have to do to make a sale is get their message past my spam filter.

The theory apparently is I'll open one and say, "Wow, this guy is really clever. He's sent me an e-mail with a phony subject line, and he beat my filter by offering to sell me seealis and biagra and lay-veetra
4 without a doctor's prescription. What a great idea! Bathtub pharmaceuticals. Thank God he was able to reach me; I hate dealing with those sleazy doctors and pharmacists."5

But the Nigerians are the best. They've regaled me many a time when my spirits needed lifting. Nothing better after having your understanding of the Fourth Amendment challenged than to read about the lost treasure of King Ibimanso, hidden from the rebels as they stormed the palace by loyal retainers of the king. And to hear the story from no less an authority than his long lost son, the Prince, now hiding out in the Ivory Coast and firing off e-mails to the California Court of Appeal — well, hell, who needs Harry Potter?

I thought this was some kind of service provided by the Nigerian government. I thought they probably sent these Indiana Jones tales in exchange for however many millions we send them every year in foreign aid. It never occurred to me someone might actually fall for this scam.

But according to Hearst Newspapers, "Thousands of Americans each year fall victim to Internet fraud schemes with reported losses last year topping $70 million."

Seventy million!? That's more than the lost treasure of King Ibimanso and the fortune left unclaimed in the Third National Merchants and Elephant Poachers Bank of Togo by the heir-less diamond merchant Heinrich von Klumpf COMBINED!!!!

Thousands of people fall for this? Thousands of people with enough education to be able to use a computer?
6 Think about that the next time you vote against a school bond.

And think about the Bank of Northwest Brazil. According to BBC News, "Two Nigerians, Frank Nwude and Nzeribe Okoli, were found guilty of swindling a Brazilian bank out of $242 million. The pair deceived an employee at the Banco Noroeste of Sao Paulo into transferring large sums of the bank's money to accounts around the world," in exchange for promises of a cut in lucrative Nigerian government contracts.

$242 million. Almost exactly the value of the money embezzled by the assassinated Minister of Finance of Chad, shortly before the revolution in that country last year, and stashed in a numbered account known only to his secretary, Mbola Kelewanda, who contacted me in June, seeking assistance in getting that money out of the country. I was, regrettably, too cowardly to provide him/her with my bank account information, or I would not be sitting here — scribbling — today.

And, while you're thinking about these things, consider Nigeria. Not only is Nigeria the source of most of these e-mail scams,
8 it is, according to a Berlin-based watchdog organization quoted by the Hearst Newspapers, "one of the most corrupt countries in the world."

And, according to another of Hearst's sources, "Money laundering, currency trafficking, check fraud, counterfeiting money and travel documents, drug trafficking, real estate and land fraud schemes, smuggling, identity fraud/theft, credit card fraud — all are prevalent in Nigeria."

Wow! In the words of the great legal scholar Jakov Smirnov, "What a country!"

Why in the world would you be considering merging with a firm in Los Angeles when Nigeria is available? Forget the money looted by King Leopold II from the treasury of the Belgian Congo in 1907 and kept hidden in a secret underground vault until discovered last week by a Zairean police official digging a new septic tank for the Kinshasa jail. That's a mere $100 million. An office in Nigeria, now THAT'S a money-maker.

Take that to your next partnership meeting and watch their eyes light up. Then call me. I just got the most amazing information about the grandson of the president of Gabon, and Justices Moore and Ikola are . . . inexplicably . . . uninterested. 

1 We all have our weaknesses: Kelly's is Jane Austen; she married me only after reluctantly concluding that Mr. Darcy was not going to come along.back 

2 There's more, but if I include it all, you'll realize how dull my stuff is by comparison.back

3 Sills is especially fond of this explanation.back

4 I'll bet he was especially proud of that one.back 

5 On the other hand, judging from some of the steroid explanations we've been subjected to, maybe this is precisely how some people decide what to put into their bodies.back

6 Pause for a moment to consider how many of your cases are decided by judges who would not, under this standard, be intelligent enough to qualify as a dupe.back

7 Amaka Anajemba had previously pled guilty and agreed to give up her homes in Nigeria, the United States, England, and Switzerland in restitution. No word on the extent of Banco Noroeste's real estate holdings.back

8 They are known in law enforcement as "419" scams because that is the section of the Nigerian criminal code which pertains to fraud.back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 14:55 Comments Closed

How I Won A Pulitzer

People think journalism is easy. It isn't. It's very, very hard.

You think Judith Miller just called the White House and said, "You got any CIA agents you want me to out?" Of course not. She had to make several calls — maybe as many as a dozen — before she could locate someone willing to do that.

Woodward and Bernstein. You think they just got out of the car and Deep Throat was standing in the space next to them? Not by a long shot. They trolled underground parking garages for years, looking for a story. Everyone told them they were crazy — there were no stories in underground parking garages. But there they were, every night, waiting for a deputy director of something or other to wander through and make history.

And my big breakthrough required the same kind of dedication. Pulitzers don't just walk into your office.1 You have to get out there and dig for the story. In my case I had to dig through the trash because my wife had mistakenly thrown out the paper before I got to the news portions.2

That was where I read about David Brooks. David Brooks is a rich guy who lives on Long Island. He recently threw a bat mitzvah for his daughter Elizabeth. This would not have been news,3 but he spent $10 million on it, and spending $10 million on anything other than a NASA hammer gets you ink.

Which, coincidentally, is how David Brooks became a rich guy. He's a defense contractor. He sells stuff to the government for the Army and the Navy and like that.

Apparently selling to the government is not like working for the government. Apparently there's money in it.

So much money that when you have a party for your kid, you hire the Eagles and Aerosmith and Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac and rap diva Ciara4 and 50 Cent. Honest. That's who performed. I hope they had money left over for sandwiches.

Kenny G, who's only won — what, 100? — Grammys, was relegated below opening act, to serenading guests at the door. When Kenny G doesn't even merit the stage, it's quite a party.

Kids attending received thousand-dollar goody bags that included iPods and digital cameras. This was necessary because they weren't sure the most star-studded concert of the century would be enough to lure the other 13-year-olds to Elizabeth's party.5

But what struck me about this, what caused my journalistic antennae, finely honed by two years on my high school paper and a half-dozen sports stories written in college, to quiver6, was the fact that a guy who made his living selling stuff to soldiers had $10 million to blow on a bat mitzvah.

I don't know. Call me a dinosaur. I think the profit margin on Kevlar vests and rifles for our Marines should not be that big. I think if you're building submarines, you shouldn't be skimping on steel. I think a decent profit from selling gyroscopes to your country's Air Force should maybe not provide you with the kind of opulence we usually associate with oil emirates and the owners of Wal-Mart.

You wanna sell cut-rate stereos, I say go for it. You wanna make schlock movies or gobble steroids before your games, knock yourself out. You wanna make a gazillion dollars following Mencken's Law7], I say good for you. But selling stuff to soldiers and sailors should not leave you with $10 million for a bat mitzvah.

My journalistic instincts were so atwitter over all this that I lay down to watch the ballgame and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was the third quarter and I'd completely forgotten about the Brooks family's soiree.

But the next day, Randy "Duke" Cunningham finally came clean. Duke Cunningham is the erstwhile San Diego congressman who confessed — confessed — to accepting $2.4 million in bribes FROM DEFENSE CONTRACTORS.

I italicized the word "confessed" in that sentence because my experience as a prosecutor was that the burglar who admitted the charged crimes often had difficulty remembering which ones they were because he got them confused with the ones he wasn't confessing to. I suspect bribe-takers may suffer from the same memory impairment, so the $2.4 million Cunningham admitted to might be give-or-take a bat mitzvah or two. I wanted to emphasize the fact that $2.4 million in bribes is what he ADMITS to.

I put "from defense contractors" in caps for the same reason I put "admits" in caps. Because print media does not provide a way to shout, other than caps, and I think those words should be shouted. For crying out loud, folks, we're talking about two defense contractors who made the news in a week — a single week — for having more disposable cash than the Sultan of Brunei.

Forget Randy Cunningham for a moment. I know this will be difficult because the facts are spectacular. The guy was an ex-fighter pilot who retired from the Navy in 1987 and was elected to Congress in 1990, so he was a guy who had spent most of his working life in the public sector, and I assume his biggest salary was the $162,100 a year he made as a Congressman.8

Yet he lived in an 8,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, a community so exclusive Kenny G plays at the gates each evening for the benefit of returning homeowners. He drove a Rolls Royce. When in Washington he lived on a 34-ton yacht called the Duke-Stir.9 Visitors to his home saw furnishings which included "silver candelabras, antique armoires, Persian carpets and custom oak and leaded-glass doors worth more than $50,000, ... and a 19th-century commode, valued at $7,200."

I have also spent my life toiling in the public vineyards.10 Yet I have never owned a piece of furniture — not even new furniture — worth $7,200. If you put $50,000 doors on my house, I would pry them off and run them down the hill to the consignment store so fast I'd melt the asphalt. And, say what you will about my Prius, it will never need the $19,700 in Rolls Royce repairs that Cunningham took as a bribe.11

In short, this guy was living like Shaquille O'Neal and NO ONE, not his fellow congresspeople, not the FBI, not the San Diego police — nobody seems to have noticed. If we can't ferret out a corrupt congressman under those circumstances, I think you know what our chances are of finding out who killed Jon Benet Ramsey and Nicole Simpson.

But forget that for a moment. Forget the elephant in the corner. You wanted to know how all this led to the insight that won me the Pulitzer and made me the journalistic icon I am today.

Well, after reading about David Brooks and Duke Cunningham, I began researching. This is to say, I turned on PBS. I mean, PBS is like always research, right?

Work the syllogism with me, folks. Why do you do research? To learn stuff you don't know. Why do you watch PBS? To learn stuff you don't know. Ergo, PBS is research. Try to keep up here, people.

Anyway, I turned on PBS and what did I find? "Antiques Roadshow." You know "Antiques Roadshow," right? Everybody goes down to the basement or up to the attic or over to Grandma's house and digs out the oldest, ugliest, stupidest looking thing they can find. Then they take it to the "experts" hired by PBS, who miraculously identify it as a genuine von Hofflepopper vase, or Picasso's 8th grade art project, or the kindling left over from a chair William Howard Taft once sat in, or some such thing that's worth, mirabile dictu, three trashbags full of cash.

I've spent years watching this show and shouting at the television. "$50,000? $50,000?! Somebody would spend $50,000 for that painting?! It's smaller than a Polaroid. And less focused. The guy found it in his garage. It's dank and dark and badly framed. I wouldn't use it as a coaster. Who would pay $50,000 for that?!"

And suddenly, the light dawned. Defense contractors. That's who.

The rest, of course, is history. After my story, the search warrants were easy. The U. S. attorney used the story about Brooks' bat mitzvah as the affidavit and, based on that alone, six different federal judges found overwhelming probable cause to search the home of every defense contractor in America.

Once inside, federal agents found the documentation proving PBS had been laundering money for defense contractors for years. It was easy, really. The contractors would just go their cousin's garage or a bankrupt antique shop or a 99¢ store, pick out some cheesy stuff, and then send a stooge to "Antiques Roadshow." PBS, informed who the stooges were and what they were bringing, would put an inflated value on whatever they brought, and the defense contractors would then pass the junk on to congressmen — "This is it, Duke; this is the one your wife saw on TV last week" — in exchange for the $20 billion, top-secret Hawkeye Veeblefetzer contract.

Voila: multimillion-dollar bat mitzvahs and the most popular show on PBS. A classic case of, "You scratch my back ..."

I was pleased to have been of help, but really, they made way too much fuss over it. Sure, it was a big story. Sure, it was bigger than Watergate. Sure it was bigger than Monica. Sure it was bigger than Katie Holmes' pregnancy. And I guess everybody's right when they say it has probably brought us a lot closer to world peace.

But, hey, I'm a public servant. I was happy to do my part.

The Pulitzer people were very nice — it was especially considerate of them to change the date of the ceremony so I could take in a Cardinals game. And modesty forbids me agreeing with little Hannah Pulitzer who thought mine was "the most coolest Pulitzer in the whole history of Pulitzers."

I just hope I can be an inspiration to others who might not think themselves capable of the really big story. It's out there. Really, it is.

And, in answer to the thousands of aspiring young journalists who have asked my advice, I offer this: Stay out of parking garages. Really. Woodward and Bernstein were lucky; you can't expect two stories out of parking garages.

Do what I did: Watch a lot of television.

1  Although Milt Policzer used to come by every now and again — which is pretty close. back

2  It wasn't her fault. The winter baseball meetings were going on and I was running a few days late on lesser matters like Iraq and the Supreme Court vacancy and global pandemics and such. She had no way of knowing. back

3  "Jewish Family Celebrates Bat Mitzvah" does not sell papers. Trust me on this. I'm a heavily decorated journalist (journalism awards come in the form of plaques; it doesn't take much to be "heavily" decorated); I know whereof I speak. back

4 This was the only act I didn't recognize. I thought it was a remedy for erectile dysfunction. back

5  I can only assume Elizabeth is not the most charming kid on the block. Although it may just be that the Eagles and Tom Petty aren't that big a draw with the middle-school set. back

6  Actually, I think "honing" antennae would probably be painful and would likely lessen their ability to function, but I'm on deadline here; we journalists seldom have a great deal of time to refine our metaphors. Work with me, people. back

7  "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." H.L. Mencken. back

8  Although, in fairness, I don't know how much he made during his year as a swimming coach. back

9  I understand they're repainting the boat now to change the hyphen to an equal sign. back

10  "... toiling in the public vineyards." That's why you hire a professional. That's some writing, that is. back

11  Corruption is not all it used to be. Raise your hand if you've ever put $20,000 into repairing a car. back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Sunday, December 18, 2005 at 11:16 Comments Closed

A Wink is as Good as a Nod to a Blind Fish

I’m trying real hard not to become a xenophobe. 


The President’s helping.  It’s difficult to develop an unhealthy fear of things foreign when things domestic are scaring the bejeezus out of you.  So I guess I should be grateful to the present administration for that.


And to past administrations.  One of the drawbacks of being a centrist is that you’re pretty much surrounded by things that convince you the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  So I spend a lot of time griping about “the present administration.”  In the immortal words of Gerry Rafferty, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am:  stuck in the middle with you.”


Still, I can feel my grip on one-worldness slipping away.  It’s becoming harder and harder for me to cling to the article of faith that the Small World ride at Disneyland is an accurate representation of the citizens of the world.  The wooden midgets beside my boat at Disneyland all seem to be the same, but the ones collecting euros and suicide bombs in other parts of the world just may be . . . well . . .different than you and me. 


I don’t mean to make a competition out of mental instability.  There’s really nothing to be gained by trying to decide whether our American human cannonball family is crazier than the Norwegian officials who arranged hunting furloughs for lifers in Greenland.  But I am concerned that more and more I seem to be deluged by things done by crazy foreigners and forwarded to me by less crazy locals.1  The latest is from MSNBC.


According to MSNBC, “The city of Rome has banned goldfish bowls, which animal rights activists say are cruel, and has made regular dog-walks mandatory in the Italian capital.”  I’m sorry, but ledes2 like that make me expect not so much a news story as a punchline.  I find myself listening for a rim-shot.  It’s hard for me to take stories like this seriously.


But it’s got a Reuters by-line on it, and MSNBC thinks enough of it to copyright the story, so it’s apparently not a prank dreamed up by the Computer Club at Capistrano Valley High.  I will grant to you that judging from MSNBC’s programming – aren’t they the ones who fill an hour of prime time with the crazy market analyst who shouts at callers and throws chairs around? – they have a pretty low bar for copyright protection, but this still seems to be a serious news story.


Apparently the Romans have concluded that since they have no hurricanes, weapons of mass destruction, foreign terrorists, or Supreme Court fiascos, they’re in danger of losing traction as a major player on the world scene.  I mean, Vercingetorix is dead, their Olympics were 45 years ago, and you can only do the Pope/chimney/smoke thing so many times before it gets old.  Yeah, I know they’re long on ruins, but so’s Baghdad, and the tourists aren’t exactly beating down the door there, either.


So the City Council decided to “go in another direction.”3  Following the lead4 of the northern Italian city of Turin, which I think has the distinction of being the only city in the world ever to have an American automobile named after it5, Rome has required that all dog owners “regularly exercise their dogs.” 


Can you imagine what a nightmare that will be to prosecute?  Just what constitutes “regular” exercise?  My wife has a regular exercise schedule which comprises five times a week.  My regular haircut appointment comes around monthly.  I sit in my regular seat at Angels games twenty times a year.  “Regular” is a word that doesn’t merely invite lawsuits, but prostrates itself in sackcloth and ashes and fairly begs for them.


The lawyers for the City of Turin saw this problem and advised the Torino council, when they passed their dog-walking law, that it had to be more specific.  Unfortunately, they appear not to have advised their council the law had to be sane.  Their law imposes a $598 fine (500 euros) if dog owners don’t walk their dogs at least THREE TIMES A DAY!      


Three times a day!  Seven days a week!  Six hundred dollars per violation!  Do the math, here.  Fido’s got a gun to your head.  “Walk me now or walk to work tomorrow, ‘cause you’re gonna have to hock the car to pay the fines.”


I’m sorry, folks.  I love dogs.  I really do.  I think the existence of dogs is one of the better arguments for the existence of God.  This is the first time in my life I’ve gone more than a couple of years without a dog, and it’s only because my yard is about the size of second base.  But I’ve never owned a dog I would walk three times a day.


Think about it.  Up at six, walk the dog.  Go to work.  Come home, walk the dog.  Eat, watch The News Hour6, walk the dog, go to bed.  You’d eventually die with great-looking legs, a happy dog, and no heirs. 


I’m surprised the Chinese haven’t thought about this:  Forget about limiting offspring, just give every citizen a dog and make thrice-daily dog-walking mandatory.  Malthus would be greatly reassured.


I dunno.  I’m not sure I’d want to be a dog in Italy these days.  According to animal rights groups, “around 150,000 pet dogs . . . are abandoned in Italy every year.”  If they enforce these laws in Turin and Rome, that number’s gonna go way up.  Italian dogs are gonna be more endangered than snail darters.


The fish thing, on the other hand is clearly a good idea.  Banning goldfish bowls is something my mother would have voted for fifty years ago. 


Every year our school would hold a carnival.  The carnivals always had themes and names and special decorations, but they should have all been called The Festival of the Furshlugginer Fish.


We kids would empty our piggy banks and use our nickels and dimes7 to buy chances in various ring-toss, beanbag-toss, and ball-toss contests in which, if we were skillful enough8, we could win a goldfish. 


I can’t for the life of me remember why we wanted the goldfish.  They were inedible, untalented, inarticulate, and boring.  But at least they didn’t have to be walked three times a day, and I can remember being desperate to win one.  One year I won five and my mother threatened to resign from the PTA.


The result of all these fish-winning contests was a veritable bonanza for the local pet shop, which not only wrote off the fish donation to the school, but sold all our parents the bowls, fishfood, gravel, garnish and little plastic castles to swim through we all thought necessary to make the fishes a part of our families. 


It never mattered.  The fish invariably lasted about as long as the Miers nomination, but I’m sure it was good for the economy and the school budgets.  We had new dodgeballs every year.


But now Roman scientists have determined that – so help me, I’m not making this up; Reuters and MSNBC may be, but I’m not – “round bowls caused fish to go blind.”9  I’m not sure how this works but it kinda makes sense to me.10


I mean, think about it.  You know how a fisheye lens distorts images?  Now multiply that by the distortive effect of a round fishbowl.  Now imagine how a cat’s face must look when viewed through those two prisms.  If hysterical blindness didn’t result from that, it would only be because the fish wasn’t paying attention. 


I think the Italians are onto something here,11 but I have to counsel caution, since I’ve been lied to before about what causes blindness. 


Besides, I’m not exactly sure how you’d go about testing for fish blindness.  You can’t use an eye chart because as soon as you put it into the water, it would get all soggy and the letters would run.  Suffice it to say, I never saw one of my fish bump into the side of the bowl and they seemed to find their food okay, so we may want to wait for replication of the Roman studies before we hand our fishbowls over to PETA.


Nonetheless, I’m concerned that all us kids may have been using dodgeballs purchased with blood money.  I mean, who wants to whack Ricky Roleter with a dodgeball if the cost is large-scale fish blindness?  I’m concerned that our tiny little moral compasses may not have been attuned to the pole of Carassius auratus.


And I applaud the Romans for raising my consciousness.  Maybe I should just accept this as an example of what a legislative body can do if it can get past partisan infighting.  Maybe overcoming petty interests of party and faction enables you not only to deal sensibly with fossil fuels, global warming, potholes and trash collection, but to find time for debate over dog-walking and fish myopia.  Maybe I should wonder why my own city council hasn’t taken steps to protect Pluto and Nemo.


Or maybe I should just wonder if xenophobia hasn’t gotten a bad rap.

1   Although the “less crazy” part is marginal.  They are, after all, readers of this column.  back

2  This word wasn’t in my dictionary, and probably won’t be in yours.  Looks like something out of Chaucer to me, but my editors assure me that is how we now refer to the “lead sentence” in a news story.   back

3  I don’t know that the City Council actually used this phrase, but it’s one that’s become very popular amongst organizations doing crazy stuff for no good reason, so I thought they might like to avail themselves of it.  back

4  This you  can find in your dictionary, and the journalism types apparently don’t care how I spell dancing terms.  back

5  What?  You don’t remember the Ford Torino?  back

6  Or the crazy guy on MSNBC.  back

7  These are currency denominations unknown to modern children; if you tell this story to your child, just lie and say you used dollars.  Otherwise, you’ll end up in a conversation which can only lead to admitting that you’re saddling them with a national debt so huge that the only appropriate response is to kill you on the spot.  You don’t want that.  back

8  Or completely unskillful, but lucky enough to be there on the last day when they were desperate to move fish.  back

9  I assume they were Roman scientists, since Reuters indicates Rome is the only place on the whole, bloody planet to identify fishbowls as an ocular problem.  back

10  A statement which can be applied to my understanding of almost any technology more complex than a doorknob.  back

11  Words I haven’t uttered since I discovered pesto.  back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Tuesday, November 08, 2005 at 19:15 Comments Closed

The Human Cannonball

These are tough times.  We've misplaced a major city; proved ourselves as overmatched by problems in the Deep South as we are by problems in the Middle East; and wasted a whole lot of time responding to global insistance the world would be a better place if we could produce smart politicians as readily as we produce smart bombs.

As I write, our failure to handle Hurricane Katrina is every columnist's favorite fodder.  Our country is dodging brickbats from all quarters.

We should be used to it by now.  Hell, we're Americans.  We get criticism for everything that takes place between Patagonia and Pluto.  We are the flak jacket of Planet Earth, and most of that criticism has about as much effect as rain on Kevlar.

But this time there's foundation for more of the criticism than usual, so it's harder to take.  One of the first rules I learned when I was an umpire was, "If they're wrong suit 'em up and get back in the game; but if they're right - if you blew the call - you just gotta let 'em vent."1 

This is always hard for me to do.  I'm a natural-born flag-waiver, and it's hard for me to watch people throw tomatoes at Uncle Sam.  I come from one of those households where "My County, right or wrong" somehow co-existed easily with "Question authority."  While it's difficult to explain how, the message I internalized was that the country was always right, but the government was always wrong.2

So at times like this, I'm always looking for something to reassure me that the good old United States of Amazing is still as unsinkable as Molly Brown.  And sure enough, there it was, smiling up at me from page 3, courtesy of the Associated Press:  "Human Cannonball to be Fired Across U.S. - Mexico Border."

Abso-blanking-lutely!  God bless America!  Say what you will about global politics or disaster relief, when it comes to shooting things, nobody's as good as we are.  That oughta get our daubers back up.

Turns out one David Smith, Sr.,3 who already holds the record for the longest human cannonball flight in the history of the universe,4 was planning to have himself cannonaded5 from Tijuana into Border Field Park in San Diego.  It was billed as the first International human cannonball firing.  This, of course, is precisely the kind of thing that scares the rest of the world witless when the contemplate that we are the world's one and only super-power.

Mr. Smith, who hails from Half Way, Missouri,6 announced his intention to be launched from a cannon, fly across a "rusty, corrugated metal fence" and land in the United States.  My understanding is he wanted to do the traditional jump over school busses, a la Evel Knievel, but the Border Patrol wasn't willing to let him line up a bunch of school busses that close to the border, so he had to settle for unconstructed sheet metal.7

But to fully appreciate how this must look to others, you need to contemplate how this project originated.  The Associated Press reports, without further elaboration or explanation, that the event was "organized... with psychiatric patients at the Baja California Mental Health Center in Mexicali, Mexico as a therapeutic project."

As near as I can figure, the patients were planning a performance of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, but decided real mayhem would be mire therapeutic, so one of them suggested, "Hey, I got it; let's shoot somebody out of a cannonball over some rusty, corrugated metal fencing.  Any luck at all, that'll be a lot more bloody and depressing than Marat / Sade."8

All agreed that was a great idea, but apparently even they were unable to find anyone in Mexico crazy enough - so to speak - to do it.  Fortunately, Mexicali is just a stone's throw9 from the mother lode of crazy, and it was no problem at all to find an American willing to provide this kind of therapy.

Enter the Smith family, which, according to AP, has constructed seven cannons which, at any given time, are busy launching five assorted Smith offspring and siblings all around the world.10  Kinda makes you glad your own dad went into the aircraft industry, doesn't it?

Anyway, Smith, Sr. fairly leaped at the chance.  I mean, how often do you get a chance to be shot from a cannon and promote mental health at the same time?

Unfortunately, the American government was not as sanguine about the whole idea.  You had to know this was gonna be a problem, didn't you?  I mean, if there's anything we're better at shooting, it's bureaucracy.  You had to know that somewhere in the government was an agency in charge of regulating human cannonball flight over international borders, didn't you?

Of course, there is.  Turns out the United States has a bunch of rules about flying over our borders.  According to the AP, "it is against the law for anyone, including U.S. citizens, to enter the country outside an official port of entry," whether on foot, airborne, or in the trunk of a car.11

And nothing illustrates the wisdom of that law better than this case.  I mean, can you imagine the chaos if word got out that you could be launched by cannon into the United States without prior legal clearance?  You know those Canadians:  once they find out there's something more dangerous and harebrained than ice hockey, box lacrosse, and gravy and cheese curds on French fries12, they'll be launching into Wisconsin hourly.  We'll be running the terror-alert flag up to orange so often, the whole country will look like Syracuse on game day.

Fortunately, federal law anticipated this problem.  Sleep well, America; Congress is on top of it.  You cannot be shot out of a cannon into the United States without a prior clearance from the Border Patrol.  Mr. Smith wisely decided he didn't want to "land in the U.S. and go to a federal penitentiary."  So he cleared it with the Chief of the United States Border Patrol, David Aguilar.

Poor Aguilar.  Can you imagine?  You're trying to combat illegal immigration with the nine deputies and six dogs Congress (which, of course, is made up primarily of people from states which have no international borders) have given you, and one of your subordinates - a guy with no prior history of mental instability - walks into your office and says, "We have a request from a Mexican mental hospital to allow someone to be shot from a cannon in Tijuana over our rusty, corrugated metal fence into Border Fields Park in San Diego."

At this point, you gotta be thinking, "I knew I should have taken that Coast Guard appointment instead of this one."

But you don't say that.  Instead you say, "Why would anyone want to do that?"

And the answer is, "They say it would be therapeutic," a response which makes it clear to you that you have spent your entire life misunderstanding what the word "therapeutic" must mean.

So your choice is to (a) enforce the law and be perceived as anti-mental health and anti-Mexico; or, (b) ignore the law and go down in history as the guy who okayed the human-cannonball-over-the-border shot.

Aguilar went with (b).

I hope it works out for him.  It's already made him my favorite Bush appointee since Carmac Carney.

And it worked out for Smith.  He made it over the rusty, corrugated metal fence and is now waiting fro the pregnancy tests to tell him when the family will be ready for its simultaneous assaults on the Hawaiian Islands.

It's a great day for America.  Now, about New Orleans...

1  A rule which has served me well as a judge.  back

2  "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, as still retain the ability to function."  F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack Up."  back

3  I'm betting a lot of human cannonballs aren't around long enough to generate juniors, so the appellation "Sr." is probably worn with pride in this profession.  back

4  Yeah, I know that's a stretch.  But he owns the earth record, and my instinct is that other life forms probably aren't as into the "How far do you think he'll go if we shoot him out of a cannon" thing as we humans.  back

5  Or, in this case, cannon-aided.  back

6  This makes in quintessentially American, but just has to be the worst home town name ever for a human cannonball.  back

7  The rust adds a nice touch of danger, though.  Apparently the thinking was that being shot out of a cannon was a little pedestrian, bust risking lockjaw... now that played on a fear right up there with giant spiders and radioactive leeches.  back

8  I can only assume they had never actually seen a production of Paul Weiss' magnum opus about the French Revolution or they would have known nothing could be more bloody and depressing.  back

9  I thought the cannon-shot metaphor would just be cloying at this point.  back

10  Except that, "If one of the girls has a baby, they can't be a cannonball during that time."  AP does not make it clear whether this is a Smith family rule or a Labor Code provision.  back

11  This concludes the MCLE portion of today's program.  back

12  Honest.  They call it "poutine."  back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Monday, October 31, 2005 at 14:51 Comments Closed

But For The Grace of God

I think it’s time we discussed Leatherbury v. Favel.  We’ve never previously discussed Leatherbury v. Favel, and this seems an appropriate occasion:  I have a deadline to meet and you obviously have time on your hands or you wouldn’t be reading my stuff.  So let’s do it.


Leatherbury v. Favel (1951) 106 Cal.App.2d 112, is a great case.  Unsung, but great.  It’s not Brown v. Board great.  It’s not even Palsgraf or International Shoe great.  It didn’t change the law, much less history.


But for the 35 years since I ran across it, while cite-checking for Kathryn Werdegar at CEB in Berkeley, it has never failed to brighten my day.  Leatherbury v. Favel is as close to allegory as the law gets, and it should make you feel better about your career.  So help me, if you can feel bad about your professional life after reading this case, your ingratitude for the gifts you’ve been given exceeds my ability to provide therapy.


The facts are simple, the exposition clear, the resolution terse.  Herein, the entire opinion (in well-deserved italics) with my exegesis following each paragraph in . . . in . . . well, in whatever you call the opposite of italics:


“Plaintiff was driving his automobile west on Van Owen Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.  He was on his own right hand side of the street, as far over as he could get, against a dirt embankment thrown up by a ditch digger.


Okay, it’s 1950.  People are digging ditches with shovels instead of trenching machines.  Harry S Truman is President of the United States, Elvis Aaron Presley is 15 years old, a 5’6”machine shop worker in Memphis, Tennessee, and Ozzie Nelson is just a bandleader.  “God’s in his heaven -- all’s right with the world.” 1


“Defendant was driving a pickup truck in the other direction, drifting from side to side of the street.  Defendant ran into the side of plaintiff’s car, but he didn’t stop; he just kept on going.


Because it’s 1950, there is a certain amazement which infuses this paragraph.  The guy didn’t stop!  He just kept going!  How rude!


“Plaintiff got out of his car and into another one going east on Van Owen.  After chasing defendant for a mile or so they caught him, and headed him into the curb.  The driver of the pursuing car left to call the police; plaintiff went to defendant’s pickup to get his license number.


Talk about your good Samaritan!  This passerby not only stops for a stranger flagging him down, he agrees to help him, pursues the pickup truck, forces it off the road and runs to call the police!  Either Leatherbury is the world’s greatest – and fastest – salesman, or people were just a lot more willing to take on a personal crime fight in the ‘50s than they are today.


“The door of the cab on the pickup was open.  Plaintiff put his foot on the attenuated running board, or door sill, of the truck.  Plaintiff had a pad of paper on his knee and a pencil in his right hand.


So the pickup has been forced to the side of the road and Leatherbury has approached to get license and insurance information from the miscreant driver, while his new best friend calls the police.  I love the fact that cars and trucks were still new enough that the terminology was unclear.  Is it a door sill?  Is it some kind of small running board (“attenuated”)?  How do we describe it?


Today I deal with questions like whether “diss” is a word and how to describe the use of an MP3 player.  People don’t realize just how tough this Court of Appeal gig is.  Forget the law; just figuring out the words is tough for some of us.


Then, without warning, defendant gunned his truck and started it with a jerk.  The open door struck plaintiff.  To save himself further injury he grabbed the side of the cab and swung himself into the rear of the truck.


Now it starts getting good.  This poor sonofagun has been side-swiped by a hit-and-run driver and now clobbered by the car door as the driver flees the scene.  I have this picture of Leatherbury’s pad and pencil flying through the air as he frantically grabs hold of the door of the truck and the clambers into the bed of the pickup.  I’ve seen this in movies dozens of times, but I had no idea anyone but a stunt man could do it.


“Plaintiff beat on the top of the cab to stop defendant, but he only went faster.  Without stopping for a boulevard sign, defendant rounded a corner at high speed and ran full tilt into a telephone pole.  Plaintiff was thrown out of the truck, was seriously injured, and was in Veterans’ Hospital for two months.


Just a ton of great pictures here.  Kudos to the late Justice Louis C. Drapeau for showing us Leatherbury in the bed of the pickup, pounding on the roof as the pick-up careens off down the street.  And I love “ran full tilt into a telephone pole.”  I can just see this truck flying around the corner on two wheels, sliding across the street like a pig on ice, and then t-boning into the telephone pole.  Leatherbury is catapulted over the cab like a bat out of hell and spends two months in hospital while all the king’s horses and all the king’s men try to put him together again.


“The arresting officer tested defendant for sobriety, and testified that in his opinion defendant was under the influence of liquor.  A witness who saw defendant’s driving, and observed him after the accident testified to the same opinion.  Defendant admitted he had been drinking.


Well, of course he admitted he’d been drinking.  Given your choice of being a pathetic drunk or a homicidal maniac, which would you choose? 


Why did I never get these cases when I was a lawyer?  Favel admits he was drinking, the cop says he was blitzed, there’s an independent witness who says he was wasted, and the only thing worse than his driving is his judgment.  Leatherbury’s attorney must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven.


“Defendant appeals from the judgment rendered against him.  He argues that plaintiff comes within the category ‘nor any other person’ in Vehicle Code, section 403, and, therefore, as a guest in the pickup may not recover; also that the judgment against the coowner of the truck is without support in the record.


Okay, this is where the case becomes my instant mood enhancer.


It’s 1950.  California law still entertains the quaint notion that someone who’s a guest in a car should not be suing his host for injuries resulting from that relationship.  Seems discourteous and ungrateful, somehow.  So Vehicle Code § 403 provides, “No person who as a guest accepts a ride in any vehicle upon a highway without giving compensation for such ride, nor any other person, has any right of action for civil damages against the driver of such vehicle or against any other person legally liable for the conduct of such driver on account of personal injury to or the death of such guest during such ride . . .” unless the injury results from intoxication or willful misconduct.


And that was Favel’s defense. The argument was that when Leatherbury was knocked into the bed of the pickup and shanghaied, he became a “guest” and could not sue.  Can you imagine what it was like to argue for Favel on appeal? 2


Some poor shlub actually had to stand up in front of three sentient human beings, people whose body temperatures and IQ’s, when added together produced a three-digit number, and argue that Leatherbury was a guest in Favel’s pickup and therefore couldn’t recover.  Can you imagine?


I mean, Leatherbury was in the hospital for two months.  TWO MONTHS.  His damages must have looked like the gross national product of Spain.  Favel was driving drunk, fled the scene of an accident, then effectively kidnapped and mangled the plaintiff.  And this guy had to stand up in court and say, “Yes, Your Honor, that’s what I said:  ‘guest.’  Section 403 of the Vehicle Code clearly states . . ..”


He’s lucky the appellate panel didn’t take him out behind the courthouse and beat him like a rented mule.  Instead, they raised judicial restraint to an art form.  They said:


“In the circumstances of this case section 403 of the Vehicle Code has no application.  (Kastel v. Stieber, 215 Cal.3d [8 P.2d 474].)


Section 402(a) of the Vehicle Code [the negligence statute] fixes the liability of the coowner.


The evidence supports the findings, and the findings support the judgment in every respect.


The judgment is affirmed.  Respondent’s motion to have appellant’s counsel publicly flogged is denied (but just barely). 3



So why do I love this case so much?  Because we’ve all been in the position of appellant’s counsel in this case.  We don’t always get to represent the good guy; sometimes we have to represent Percy Favel.4  It sucks, but it comes with the territory. 5  All lawyers have to do it in one form or another.  Even judges.                   


People are always surprised to hear judges talk about having to do things they don’t like doing.  But our job description doesn’t involve making the law, just following it.  So in 10 years on the trial bench and seven here, I’ve had to make a lot of rulings and sign a number of opinions I didn’t like. 


My Superior Court staff used to say they could always tell when I was going to have to suppress evidence or send someone to state prison, because I came in grouchy on those days.  And I can remember a couple of jnov and new trial motions that made me cranky for months.


That’s why Leatherbury v. Favel has always meant so much to me.  Because I realized that somewhere out there was a lawyer who had to argue Percy Favel’s appeal.  When things got bad, when I didn’t like my job or didn’t like a result or had to do something I really hated, I was always able to prop myself up with the knowledge that no matter what I had to do that day, I didn’t have to stand up in front of a Court of Appeal and argue the appellant’s case in Leatherbury v. Favel.


And no matter what you have to do today – no matter how obdurate your judge, how unreasonable your managing partner, how infuriating your client, how impossible your issue – neither do you.      


1   Browning would have felt right at home in the San Fernando Valley in 1950. back


2  Actually, if I’d been Leatherbury’s trial counsel, the last thing Favel’s attorney would have seen before awakening in the hospital would have been me, wild-eyed, diving across the table with my hands reaching for his throat, screaming, “Guest!?  Guest!?  He almost killed my guy twice, broke most of his bones, his nose and his pencil, put him in the hospital for the entire time “This Old House” was Number One on Your Hit Parade, and you wanna argue my guy was a guest!?  I’ll show you ‘guest’ . . .” back


3  Okay, this part wasn’t actually in the opinion.  But it should have been. back


4  Yeah, Percy. back


5 Although, if you don’t like the worst case on your calendar better than you like Percy Favel’s, you really oughta just close up shop and consider selling aluminum siding.  back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Monday, September 19, 2005 at 15:34 Comments Closed

A Spaniard in the Works

I am pretty much a model husband. I don’t smoke or drink (except for tequila, which really isn’t drinking so much as reupholstering your throat), I don’t own a snake, I don’t bring fish in the house, and I haven’t watched The Three Stooges since I was 12. I figure that oughta be enough.

My wife doesn’t appreciate the cornucopian embarrassment of marital riches I represent. She wants more. She wants the seat down all the time, crumbs cleaned off the counter, and huge bags of heavy groceries lugged upstairs on days other than the summer and winter solstices.

This is why she became a lawyer: she’s just naturally contentious.

I’ve been fighting a holding action on this front, and doing pretty well. I’m old enough to claim I didn’t hear her car when she comes back from the grocery store, and to insist my failing eyesight makes it hard for me to notice the crumbs. I’ve told her about the studies linking back trouble in men to constantly bending over to put the seat down,
1 and I stop to admire the snakes every time we go past a pet store. 2 All in all, I figured I had the high ground pretty well staked out.

But the Spaniards let me down.

It says here, “The Spanish parliament last week approved legislation making divorce speedier and easier, while ordering men to share child care and housework.”

Excuse me? Ordering men to share childcare and housework? ORDERING men to share childcare and housework?!?!

Forget that insignificant little divorce thing, forget their approval of gay marriage, which got all the CNN and Fox News time. Concentrate on what really matters here. They passed legislation ordering men to share childcare and housework?

Why wasn’t this stop-the-presses, read-all-about-it, Michael-Jackson-acquitted headline news? Iraq schmiraq. There’s been a revolution in Spain, for crying out loud. This makes Lenin look like a tinkerer.

How did this happen? How did a citadel of male supremacist dogma like Spain allow such legislation? Was there a coup I didn’t hear about? Was the Spanish government overthrown by godless, communist, alien feminists from Krypton?

I mean, in the Battle of the Sexes, this is big. This may not be Gettysburg, but it’s at least Chickamauga. Spain was a country we men thought we could count on. These guys not only understood machismo, they could spell it! For us to lose Spain is like Bush losing Kansas.

According to Spain’s Centre for Sociological Investigation, Spanish men spend 13 minutes a day looking after their children. I’ve only got a teenage daughter left in the house and it takes me 13 minutes just to locate her on any given evening. I couldn’t take decent care of a snake in 13 minutes a day.

These guys were living in paradise. According to my sources
3, “Four in ten Spanish men do no housework at all.” None at all! Near as I can determine, they spend most of their time eluding bulls and answering surveys in which they oppose women working outside the home. 4

Well, kiss that goodbye. Unless they can throw up some last-minute legislative roadblock, Spanish Family Law will now include statutory obligations to vacuum and empty the cat box.

This is how all the really great ideas – like male supremacy – are subverted. Little inroads. Little defeats. You start out agreeing to use coasters and next thing you know they’ve passed legislation requiring you to do windows.

According to The Australian
5, “The new egalitarian domestic regime could dramatically alter the state of divorce in Spain, because judges will now consider men’s commitment to this pledge when ruling on separations and access to children.”

Aw, what a nightmare this is gonna be. I can see it now. Unless you can prove you did as much ironing as the little woman, she’s gonna get custody of the big screen. Which, of course, is ridiculous, because if you try to use picture in picture for anything but March Madness and baseball, you just get chaos.

But judges don’t care about that stuff. All they care about is the damned statute and the damned statute is gonna say you have to “share domestic responsibilities and the care and attention of the children.” It’s not gonna say anything about times when the Hooters Miss Bikini Universe and Belching Competition
6 conflicts with the school play.

And, of course, the Spanish men just stood by
7 and let this happen. I mean, surely they could have put a stop to this. They sure as hell weren’t too busy to fight it. Unless the legislation was passed during a big soccer match, there’s no excuse for losing a battle this important. Where’s El Cid when you need him?

Having lost in Spain, the International Men’s Movement for Cooler Rights Than Women Get
8 will have to fall back and find another battleground. I’m pretty sure it won’t be Australia. That battle’s already lost.

They have a Sex Discrimination Commissioner in Australia. That’s always bad news for us guys, because we are very rarely the moving force behind the creation of jobs like Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Australia’s is named Pru Goward. “Pru” is short for “Prudence,” so this is not a fight we xy’s are gonna win.

Her latest report calls for men “to do their fair share of household chores,”
9 and the minority report, as I understand it, reads, in full, “Come on, Pru, gimme a break, will ya? Jeez.” As intellectually appealing as that response is to me, it seems, inexplicably, to have generated little support.

So Australia’s pretty much lost, Spain has completely capitulated, and Greenland is cold as a well-digger’s ass and doesn’t pick up NFL games. The world is shrinking for my gender. We’re running out of positions to fall back to.

We’ve still got the Middle East. Last time I looked, women were not allowed to drive NASCAR in Dubai. In fact, last time I looked, they weren’t allowed to drive, which is pretty confusing, because if they can’t drive, how do they get the beer back from the store still cold?

But they also require women to walk around wearing draperies, and have no Hooters franchises at all. Yeah, I know they’ve got a lot of oil, but what good is oil if you can’t slather it all over bikini-clad babes? Bottom line, controlling the Middle East is like controlling Baltic and Mediterranean when your opponent has hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place.

I’m afraid men may just have to face the fact this game is slipping away. Even technology has turned against us. The bad news out of Spain was accompanied by news of a new household appliance on the market in Europe.

According to The Australian, which oughta just change its name to More Bad News for Men, “The latest washing machine, named ‘Your Turn,’ prevents the same person – typically a wife and mother – from using the appliance consecutively by adopting fingerprint recognition technology.”

I’m sorry, but this is just a perversion of modern science.

They’ve taken a perfectly good scientific principle, which is extremely valuable when used properly – like for capturing criminals and identifying the winning entrants in bass fishing contests – and misapplied it to the promotion of a social agenda which strips really cool privileges from half the people on the planet. Surely no right-thinking person can support this.

What a terrible idea. Can’t you just hear a Spanish wife telling her spouse he has to go load the washer or his soccer uniform will be unwearable.
10 Can’t you just see the smug little smile of self-satisfaction on her face when he realizes he has to do it because she did the last load so the washer won’t accept her fingerprint? I mean, that’s just not right.

But it’s the way things are. Brave new world, indeed.

Oh, we can fight back. There are criminal defense attorneys out there on the front lines right now, arguing that fingerprints aren’t reliable and should not be admissible in court proceedings. It won’t take much more than a couple of keystrokes to change that to “should not be allowable in household appliances.”

We can get Congress to ban paella in the congressional lunchroom. That’ll show those miserable Spanish quislings. We can slap tariffs on the Spanish automobile industry and limit our imports of Ford Fiestas and Dodge Durangos. We can re-name Los Angeles, Anaheim.

But it’s likely too late. The tide appears finally to be going out on male supremacy. Eventually men everywhere will look back on this day, put down their mops, shake their fists, and shout, “Damn you, Don Quixote; damn you and the Rocinante you rode in on.”

As John Lennon said so presciently, there’s a Spaniard in the works.

1 And the studies showing that to be a completle different maneuver that picking up a golf ball. back

2 You spend even little time musing out loud about a pet snake, and your wife will quickly conclude maybe your other flaws aren't so bad after all. back

3 This is a low-budget operation. My sources consist of two stay-at-home bloggers, a county jail inmate, and Karl Rove. But this time I made them conference call so they could each confirm the other's information. I figure that puts me on the same level as network news. back

4 81% if the woman has children. back

5 The county jail inmate got released and I couldn't track him down, so I had to resort to some legitimate press coverage for information. back

6 Which, by the way, is a cultural tradition not unlike opera and kabuki. back

7 Or, more probably, sat by. back

8 No, there isn't. And that's how legislation like this gets passed. back

9 Damned radical feminists. back

10 Actually, "unwearable" is not a concept with which my gender is familiar. Replace "unwearable" in the sentence above with "so muddy and sweat-soaked that your teammates won't let you on the bus and you'll have to stay home and clean toilets." That is a concept we can understand. back

11 Or not. Come to think of it, that's already a problematic distinction. Let's just leave that one alone. back

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by William W. Bedsworth on Thursday, August 04, 2005 at 16:37 Comments Closed
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