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No Reason to Cheer Print E-mail
by Bob Reagan    Mon, Apr 11, 2011, 12:12 PM

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,  

That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!  

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man  

That ever lived in the tide of times.  

Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!  

Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,--  

Which, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips,  

To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue--  

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;  

Domestic fury and fierce civil strife  

Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;  

Blood and destruction shall be so in use  

And dreadful objects so familiar  

That mothers shall but smile when they behold  

Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;  

All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:  

And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,  

With Ate by his side come hot from hell,  

Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice  

Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;  

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth  

With carrion men, groaning for burial.

 

- Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1   

 

It does not take a great deal of imagination to convert Mark Antony's lamentation to an allegory whereby Abraham Lincoln mourns the dismemberment of the Union (Caesar) by the secessionist South (Brutus and the others). The prophecy was true enough: the dogs of war did slip, and there were over six hundred thousand carrion men buried before it was over. Shakespeare was a master of tragedy, and if that overused word ever is appropriately applied to a national collective, it certainly is to the American Civil War. A tragedy is a certain doom to one who is otherwise a paragon of nobility and rectitude, but possesses a tragic flaw of character that brings about that misfortune. The flaw in ancient Greek tragedy was hubris, precipitated by a latent fateful condition becoming manifest. Among Shakespearean flaws were the ambition of Macbeth, the jealousy of Othello, and the indecision of Hamlet. The tragic flaw of America, of course, was the system of chattel slavery, which came to be regarded as an economic and social necessity in the Southern states, but at the same time was an institution diametrically opposed to the Enlightenment ideals of the Nation's founding. It was, practically speaking, more than that. "Unrequited labor," in Lincoln's words, was incompatible with the free market capitalism that was emerging along with the rapid technological changes of the industrial revolution.

There have been thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of books written about the Civil War. With the coming of the sesquicentennial, there are certain to be many more. Historians, as well as others of all stripe, will continue to argue about the causes, the issues, and the legacies. Of course, the "ifs" - the counterfactual speculation - will be prominent, as they always are.

One of the "ifs" surrounds the series of events leading up to the attack on Fort Sumter 150 years ago, the attack itself, and the aftermath when the conflict became inevitable.  

Beginning on December 20, 1860, and through the first week of February 1861, the six states of the lower South and Texas left the Union. By early April no other state had seceded, and it was not clear that others would. Unionist sentiment was strong in the upper South and border states, particularly in the Appalachian and Ozark highlands. Virginia assembled a convention to consider secession, but had actually rejected it - more than once. Various attempts were made to resolve the crisis, especially an effort by Kentucky Senator John Crittenden and an informal House Committee of Thirty-Three, who proposed to amend the Constitution - ironically, it would have been the 13th Amendment - to protect slavery where it existed. While maintaining the Union was central to Lincoln's and the Republican Party's purpose, there was sentiment in the North to let the secessionist states go in peace, at least so long as no organized violence had been directed at the Government. The history of warfare is replete with peoples who probably could have worked out their differences but for an improvident act of violence.

In the process of secession, the departing states had demanded possession of federal enclaves within their borders, and for the most part, those were surrendered. The exceptions were three forts on Florida islands, and Fort Sumter, located on an island in Charleston harbor.  

Fort Sumter had potential strategic value in that its location could have blocked the entrance to Charleston, but its garrison, armament, and provisions at the time were inadequate for that task. Its primary value was symbolic; to the Union, it was United States government territory, and thus inviolate; to South Carolina and the new Confederacy, it was an affront to the independence and sovereignty the secessionist states were asserting. Symbols, of course, are ostensibly what wars are fought for, at least to those who have to do the fighting, and are not unimportant. Still, Sumter posed no military threat to the port of Charleston, the state, or the Confederacy.

What was important about Sumter beyond its merely symbolic value was the effect of militarily defending it. Lincoln's expressed resolve to hold onto federal property was of utmost concern to the Upper South states still in the Union; sending federal troops to South Carolina would require their passage though Virginia and North Carolina. Conversely, after Lincoln's inauguration, rumors out of Washington that Sumter might be given up was seen as allaying that concern. Those rumors were a result, at least partly, of the new Secretary of State William Seward's clumsy, or cunningly devious, communications to the Confederate government.

Shortly after his inauguration on March 4, President Lincoln was made aware of dispatches from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, that the fort only had sufficient provisions for six weeks. Lincoln had to decide whether to abandon or re-supply the garrison. Seward expressed his belief that Sumter should not be reinforced because that was exactly the kind of act that would precipitate violence. Five of the seven cabinet members agreed, and so voted when polled. Lincoln remained undecided, mindful of the Virginia convention, which remained in session for possible reconsideration of its rejections. Lincoln considered agreeing to evacuate Sumter if the Virginia convention would dissolve, figuring that saving the state for the Union by giving up a fort was not a bad deal. That thought that did not go anywhere.  

Meanwhile, in mid-March, Seward began communicating with Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, an Alabaman who had not yet left the Court, but acted as an intermediary between the administration and the commissioners Confederate President Jefferson Davis had sent to Washington. Seward, probably without Lincoln's authority, told Campbell that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. When this did not occur, Seward equivocated to Campbell first by saying that there were no plans to re-supply the fort, and then later, that the fort would not be re-supplied without advance notice to the South Carolina governor. On April 6, Lincoln signed an order dispatching a naval expedition to re-supply the fort. Seward again told Campbell that the government would fully keep faith regarding his previous communications as to Sumter, which Campbell reported to Davis. On April 8 an envoy in Columbia delivered a message to Governor Pickens to the effect that Fort Sumter would be re-supplied with provisions only, and if not resisted, no reinforcements, arms, or munitions would be delivered.  

The Confederate cabinet assembled to discuss the events. Many believed Seward's series of mis-communications was intentional deception, and that there really was a plan to reinforce the fort, and even more. Some suggested an immediate attack on the fort, others cautioned restraint. Robert Toombs of Georgia, though one of the most ardent secessionists, cautioned Jefferson Davis: "Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend in the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal." Despite this prescient warning, Davis sent orders to General P.G.T. Beauregard to reduce the fort if he determined that the federal re-supply efforts were in earnest. On April 11, Beauregard sent two men to the fort demanding that his former West Point artillery instructor Anderson surrender, with honorable terms, including a salute to the flag. Anderson had no authority to do so, and refused.

And so, at 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861, sixty-seven year old Edmund Ruffin, a Virginian and ardent secessionist, pulled the lanyard of a howitzer; the shot burst in the air over Fort Sumter. After a two day bombardment, during which no one on either side was killed, the fort surrendered. (After the surrender, a Union soldier was killed by a mishap during a final 50 gun salute to the flag.) Thus, the rush into the abyss of full blown war began. Lincoln immediately called for 75,000 volunteers from loyal states to serve to suppress the rebellion. Beginning with Virginia, the Upper South states seceded, and the die was cast. The ensuing havoc wracked the nation for four years, with the aftermath and ramifications lasting down to our own day.  

As Major Anderson led his troops onto the relief ship, bearing the fort's tattered flag he vowed to be buried with, it is reported that the Confederate soldiers on shore stood silently with their heads bared. As it was to turn out, there was no reason to cheer.

Note: Sources for the foregoing included Mark Egnal, Clash of Extremes (2009); Nelson Lankford, Cry Havoc: The Crooked Road to Civil War (2007); and generally Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative (Volume I, Fort Sumter to Perryville) (1958), and numerous others.

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Reclaiming the Constitution (Part 8) Print E-mail
by Wes Riddle    Mon, Apr 11, 2011, 08:09 AM

Yet another example of regulatory fiat by bureaucracy, in contravention of the express will of representative assemblies (state legislature and Congress) is the EPA’s invalidation in July 2010 of a state permit program that had been operating for 16 years under EPA oversight.  The Texas “Flexible Permitting Program” is one of the most innovative and successful air-quality programs in the country.  The program sets strict emission caps for facilities as a whole and allows some operational flexibility under the caps. Yet because it deemed that the permits were not detailed enough, EPA invalidated the state permitting rules. 

Overnight, legal authorization for most of the refineries, large manufacturers, and some power plants in Texas were thrown into legal limbo. Although EPA has yet to conclude how the state rules should be changed, EPA decreed the individual facilities holding Texas flexible permits to be in violation of the Clean Air Act.  Although the flex permit holders comply with the state issued permits, EPA elects to use coercion under the guise of a “voluntary” audit ending with an enforcement decree. 

EPA’s actions jeopardize major commercial projects on which thousands of new jobs depend.  Across Texas , planned expansions in capacity and employment now face a potentially prohibitive degree of regulatory risk.  The dispute over permits has struck at the heart of the state’s industrial base, one of the vital engines of the U.S. economy, which produces more than 25 percent of the country’s transport fuel and more than 60 percent of its industrial chemicals.

EPA also announced that it plans to adopt a new ozone standard this fall.  As Dr. Roger McClellan, former chairman of EPA’s own scientific advisory committee recently testified, the new standard “is a policy judgment based on flawed science and inaccurate presentation of the science that should inform policy decisions.”  Moreover, of 3,000 counties in America , only 85 fail to attain the current standard, but according to the Congressional Research Service, the number could increase to 650 counties.  Non-attainment of the ozone standard will shackle state authority and economic growth. 

The federal government has shown itself increasingly inimical to the domestic production of fossil fuels.  Indeed the intended effect of the Department of Interior’s moratorium on new deepwater off shore drilling was to halt virtually all new exploration—and the result has been crippling harm and job losses throughout the Gulf Coast economies, already struggling in difficult times.  Tellingly, many of the scientists whose names were cited as having recommended a blanket ban have since loudly protested that they did no such thing, and Under Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank recently testified that the administration didn’t bother to assess what the economic impact might be before it issued the ban.  The administration now admits that the ban will result in more than 8,000 job losses on the Gulf Coast .  The ban had no basis in the Oil Pollution Act, which permits the federal government to halt drilling on a case-by-case basis but not for the industry as a whole.  Three federal courts struck down the moratorium as an illegal “arbitrary and capricious” exercise of regulatory power, but the administration simply ignored them and reissued the moratorium in a slightly different form. 

By the time Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar declared an end to the off shore drilling moratorium on October 12, 2010, the regulatory uncertainty had already driven five major drilling rigs to other countries, with millions of dollars in disrupted contracts.  The new head of the Bureau of Ocean and Minerals Management assures environmentalists that he will not be in any hurry to approve new permits, and industry leaders have taken that as further evidence of a hostile regulatory environment.  For example, the processing of permit applications for shallow water drilling (in less than 500 feet of water) has slowed to a tiny fraction of what it was before the BP spill—putting at risk perhaps 40,000 jobs on the Gulf Coast.  This is in addition to the tens of thousands of jobs at risk because of the moratorium on off shore drilling and its long-term effects. 

Thus, the current administration has devised a sophisticated and highly effective way of using regulatory uncertainty to shut down economic activity that it sees as incompatible with its agenda.  Not even federal court judgments against its policies have impeded their effectiveness in stifling economic activity.  This is an example of the federal government exercising powers illegally—according to explicit judgments of federal courts—in an effort to impose radical federal policies on States and the economic freedom of individuals. 

If these unilateral environmental actions are allowed to stand, the consequences will be simple and devastating: States will lose control of their economic policies, and the Nation’s economic policies will be increasingly driven by whatever ideology (environmental or otherwise) happens to prevail in Washington .  The “laboratory of democracies” that has allowed States to innovate and compete in order to develop the most successful models, will be increasingly impaired, replaced by the virtual nationalization of a big-government approach that consistently leaves unemployment and lost opportunity in its wake.  The States and the people will be forced into a “one size fits all” approach to public policy, a top-down mode that is at odds with both the American tradition of self-government and the Constitution that codifies that tradition. 

_____________________

Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford .  Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary and is currently Chairman of the Central Texas Tea Party.  Article condensed from an essay by Ted Cruz and Mario Loyola (Texas Public Policy Foundation, Nov 2010).  Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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A Future of Debt Print E-mail
by Paul D. Perry    Mon, Apr 11, 2011, 08:05 AM

Weak, anemic, wimpy, wilted - all good terms to define the Republican efforts or lack thereof to curtail government spending during Friday night and Saturday morning temporary fix negotiations regarding the 2011 budget mess. The Democrats were their normal irresponsible selves.
 
Yes, both major parties running your government somehow managed to cut federal spending by about 37.5 billion dollars out of an almost 3.37 trillion-dollar federal spending budget, using 2010's budget numbers as a baseline. They did this to avoid a federal shutdown, they said.
 
Did they forestall a real federal meltdown in the future? In short, our government is still piling on long-term debt that must be paid by taxpayers in the future. Our Congress just kicked the can down the road.
 
Keep in mind the almost 3.37 trillion-dollar 2010 budget is the budget of Pres. Barack Hussein Obama and a Democrat Congress. Pres. George Walker Bush and a Democrat Congress combined their efforts for a budget that was about a half trillion dollars less.
 
As a matter of fact, if we restored spending to the level of the 2008 Bush-era budget, we might see some positive results and save half a trillion dollars.
 
How does all this spending affect you in the short run? Global trade is still for the most part priced in U.S. dollars. Commodities, including oil, are priced in the good old Greenback.
 
Currency, in this case dollars, varies in value compared to things like oil with the supply. The more supply, the more dollars in circulation, the less each dollar is worth in global markets.
 
Overall less spending by Congress and less money being issued or loaned by the Federal Reserve should result in lower commodity prices - including the prices at your local gas pump -- in the short run.
 
Commodity prices may never be as low as they were before the recent Gulf War because of increasing global demand. However, make no mistake, our bloated spending is also contributing to higher commodity prices. The federal government, including your military, uses a lot of fuel. Any decrease in commodity prices would even make the cost of government go down.
 
Deficit spending and long-term debt are at the heart of civilizations crashing and being replaced over time. Let us hope that Congress and the President take time to contemplate that and act properly. It just might take a temporary government shutdown to focus their attention and the public's on real issues, like our coming Third World economic status if the spending isn't curtailed.
 
In the meanwhile, is that the sound of a can being kicked or our nation's future?
 

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Would You Rather Be Happy or Famous? Print E-mail
by James Reza    Tue, Apr 5, 2011, 09:20 AM

Most of us, including yours truly, sometimes wonder or dream how we would react if we won the Lotto.  I usually say, I’d pay off the balance of my daughter’s house mortgage, leave a sizeable amount of money for each one of my kids and grandkids and donate a sizeable amount to my church for their needs or building program.  Other than that I believe I’d live my life exactly as I’ve done for most of my adult life: cut my own grass, continue exercising at the Y, trying to eat healthy and keep my weight down, drink a few beers in the evening at Applebee’s, continue playing my guitar and trying to sing a song on the weekends, and probably buy a nice comfortable house in my favorite city, San Antonio.  Some of you might ask, “James, what the heck is wrong with you?  You mean you wouldn’t travel abroad, buy a luxury car, or buy a new beautiful luxurious home?”  The answer I’d give is “I don’t think so.”

In my life I’ve know two men who won the Lotto, one, a 40 year old Hispanic musician and the other a retired white man.  Both, interestingly, won by purchasing just one Lotto ticket.  The Hispanic who won the Lotto bought a new Cadillac and drove it to Austin from San Antonio to collect his Lotto check ($6 million).  The retired white man drove his 1990 Ford truck from Fort Worth to Austin to get his Lotto check (9 million) and to this day drives his old Ford truck.  My Hispanic musician friend who is obese and has diabetes despite his acquired wealth, last year lost one of his legs and might loose the other due to his inability to curb his bad eating habits.  Last week my Hispanic rich friend called me to see if I would make him a CD of vintage conjunto (Tex-Mex accordion music), which I gladly did.  During our phone conversation he told me how bad his health has deteriorated and wished how he could turn his bad health around.  Meanwhile my white retired also wealthy friend seems to be in good health and stays busy and active by donating a lot of his time helping young 4H Club members at a local rodeo facility in Saginaw, Texas.  Obviously, wealth can’t buy all of us happiness and health.

Last month, when mega star Liz Taylor died a flurry of thoughts danced in my mind.  In 1964, I, along with my wife and friends were vacationing in Guadalajara, Mexico.  An early riser, I remember one morning in the hotel we were staying I met and dined with Javier Solis, a famous Mexican singer.  As Mr. Solis and I talked about his music and his upcoming stomach operation in Mexico City, a large group of photographers and new media personnel entered the dining room.  To Mr. Solis and my surprise the news group were focusing on a couple eating breakfast in the dining room that were none other than Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, who was filming The Night of the Iguana in Mexico.  I recall that Mr. Solis and I were both shocked at the stunning beauty of Liz Taylor. 

As I read Ms. Taylor’s bio in my local newspaper I suddenly began to feel sorry for this very beautiful and talented woman.  It was so obvious to me that despite Ms. Taylor’s beauty, talent, wealth, and worldwide notoriety, she always seemed to be looking for happiness whether in her eight marriages and seven husbands, drugs, alcohol, over eating etc.  And sadly, she paid dearly for her bad habits undergoing at least 20 major operations; nearly dying from a bout with pneumonia in 1990.  Due to weight, she had both hip joints replaced in 1995.  She also acknowledged a 35-year addiction of sleeping pills and painkillers.  During much of her later career, Ms. Taylor’s waistline, various diets, diet books and tangled romances were the butt of jokes by Joan Rivers and others.  John Belushi mocked her on “Saturday Nigh Live,” dressing up in drag and choking on a piece of chicken.  My friends that doesn’t speak well of Ms. Taylor, a once beloved movie star, who always was looking for but never seem to have found true happiness in her fame, lavish lifestyle and wealth.

Another tragic story of a mega star much like Ms. Taylor was the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Pressley.  As a young teen, I saw Elvis in person at the Northside Coliseum in the Stockyards in North Fort Worth.  Elvis was touring with a country group, The Louisiana Hayride, where he was being hailed as the new white Rock and Roll star.  I remember Hispanic friends saying, “This white guy can’t hold a candle to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.”  But, Elvis soon proved us wrong when he recorded a black rock and roll song titled “Hound Dog,” which was recorded earlier by a black female artist, Big Mama Thornton.  The song topped the national charts and the rest is history.  Though dead, Elvis still sells as many of his recordings (CDs, internet downloads) as he did when he was alive and makes more money in doing so than popular artists who are alive and still performing.

Enjoying worldwide fame, wealth, adoring male and female fans, Elvis much like Ms. Taylor was not a happy trooper.  He like Ms. Taylor had a problem with his weight.  Also, he was very much dependent on drugs which eventually did him in at the age of 42.  At the age of 23 he lost the love of his life, his mom, Gladys, who was only 42.  At the burial of his mom, Elvis let go of a tidal wave of sorrow that embarrassed the funeral guests who had never experienced that kind of physical grief at a burial.  With the death of his mother, Elvis went into a state of shock from which he would never fully emerge.  I once read that Elvis would fly in his old Fort Hood soldier buddies who he considered his true friends to be with him.  Sad isn’t it?  All the fame, money, a man could want and Elvis still had to fly in friends to be with him.

My friends, you who still have your spouse, parents, more so your moms, grandkids, or you own children, who are in good health, please thank the Good Lord for it.  Those are things that not even the wealthiest and most famous people in the world can buy.

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Some Judges Have The Write Stuff Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Apr 4, 2011, 12:32 PM

In previous columns, I’ve written about judges who have enlivened their opinions with literary references, quoted from song lyrics, movies, and television shows, and even put their judicial opinions into verse.  While some have been criticized by their colleagues for seemingly making light of issues important to the litigants and the public at large, I believe these jurists are simply finding a creative way of achieving what judges should be striving for anyway—a ruling that communicates about a legal issue or doctrine in a manner that is informative, accessible, and memorable even to readers without law degrees.  A couple of years ago, for instance, I wrote of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion in a criminal law case that departed from the usual dry, “just the facts, ma’am” recitation of what happened and instead channeled hardboiled detective novelists like Dashiell Hammett.

 

Recent events have shown that the judges I wrote about have plenty of kindred spirits on the bench.  In Canada, Judge David Watt of the Ontario Court of Appeals is attracting attention for his writing style of late, which seems to owe more to Mickey Spillane’s and Elmore Leonard’s private eye paperback potboilers than to dusty old legal treatises.  For example, in a murder case from 2010, Regina v. Simon, Judge Watt introduced the case in no-nonsense fashion, writing: “Handguns and drug deals are frequent companions, but not good friends.  Rip-offs happen.  Shootings do too.  Caveat emptor.  Caveat venditor.  People get hurt.  People get killed.  Sometimes, the buyers.  Othertimes, the seller.  That happened here.”  In another opinion that overturned a domestic violence conviction in Regina v. Flores, Judge Watt wrote, “Early one morning in June, 2008, Melvin Flores closed the book on his relationship with Cindy MacDonald.  With a butter knife embedded in Cindy’s back.  Fifty-three blunt force injuries.”  Still other rulings by Judge Watt have abandoned dense legalese for crime genre prose, like the following:

 

          “On a cold weekend in late January, 2010, the lengthy but brittle relationship among Michael Luciano, Colleen Richardson-Luciano, and James Cooper ended.  Abruptly and violently.  First, in Woodbridge.  Then, in Egmondville.  Two deaths.  Colleen Richardson-Luciano died first.  In Woodbridge, stabbed to death.  A day later, James Cooper died in Egmondville.  By asphyxia from strangulation.”       (Regina v. Luciano, May 2010)

 

          “Tung Duong and Dung Ton fell out over money owed and product misappropriated in their business ventures in drugs, prostitution, and money-lending.  Duong decided that he wanted Ton dead.  Killed, along with Ton’s wife, Bon Bui, if they were together.  Arrangements were necessary.  Money to finance the job.  A killer or two to carry it out.  A weapon.  A place away from public view.  An escape plan.”       (Regina v. Yumnu, October 2010)

 

          “Explosions damage and destroy things.  Sometimes, their victims are people.  Like here.  An explosion damaged and destroyed several buildings.  Hurt some people too.  And killed others.  The explosion was preventable.  If only . . .”          (Regina v. Enbridge Gas Distribution and Precision Utility, Ltd., January 2011)

 

Judge Watts’ writing style has drawn fire from critics who feel he’s trying to titillate and entertain with his opinions rather than to provide a careful, reasoned consideration of the facts.  University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich describes Watt as “out of control” and speculates that a judicial disciplinary action may loom in his future.  He insists that Watts’ “style of writing serves to sensationalize and desensitize tragic facts and serious social issues.”  University of Ottawa law professor Rakhi Ruparelia shares these concerns.  Criticizing Judge Watts’ recitation of the facts in the Flores case, Prof. Ruparelia writes “While making judicial writing more accessible is a laudable pursuit, in my view, this judgment simply trivializes the murder of a woman at the hands of an abusive partner.”

 

I have two words of advice for ivory tower legal academics (many of whom have never stepped foot in a courtroom) quick to criticize judges who write in a less formal, pedantic style: lighten up.  Unlike law professors, whose heavily footnoted, densely written musings about theoretical rather than practical legal issues will be read by a limited audience consisting mainly of other academics, judges write for an audience that includes not only the practicing lawyers who will be guided by their opinions, but also the public that will be impacted by them.  Judges owe it to the society that they serve to render opinions in prose that is clearly written, free of legalese, and that people can understand and relate to on some level.

 

A good example of this is Texas’ own Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who’s been known to sprinkle in some pop culture wisdom along with his legal reasoning.  In his June 2008 concurring and dissenting opinion in FKM Partnership Ltd. V. Board of Regents of the University of Houston System, Justice Willett opined that the Court’s ruling had treated the university “to a classic Inspector Clouseau moment.”  He explained in a footnote his reference to the classic comedy “The Pink Panther Strikes Again;” in the scene, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) asks a hotel clerk if his dog bites and the clerk says no.  When the bumbling Clouseau goes to pet the dog, the animal bites him, prompting the detective to exclaim “I thought you said your dog did not bite.”  The clerk drily replies, “That is not my dog.”  (For interested readers, Justice Willett even provided a link to the movie scene itself on YouTube).  In an opinion the following June in Edwards Aquifer Authority, et al. v. Chemical Lime Ltd., Justice Willett again channeled classic comedy, making a reference to the “Seinfeld-ian nothingness” of a party’s position.

 

But Justice Willett got plenty of attention from Star Trek fans and sci-fi geeks everywhere when he boldly went where no judge has gone before in his October 2010 concurring opinion in Robinson v. Crown Cork & Seal Inc.  In considering the question of whether the Texas legislature had overstepped its police power authority, Justice Willett wrote that “we recognize that police power draws from the credo that ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ . . . while this maxim rings utilitarian and Dickensian (not to mention Vulcan), it is cabined by something contrarian and Texan: distrust of intrusive government and a belief that police power is justified only by urgency, not expediency.”  The judge’s reference to a line from the movie “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was a topic of discussion on science fiction and Star Trek websites, but Justice Willett shrugs off such pop culture references.  He acknowledges that “A lot of legal writing, including judicial writing, is clunky and soul-crushingly dull.  In my view, legal humor is not an oxymoron.  The law, in fact, sometimes can be fun.”  Such TV and movie references, he says, can sometimes advance the legal point he’s trying to make in a manner more easily grasped by the reader.

 

Speaking from the standpoint of someone who cares about the public’s understanding of the judicial system, and who has to read a lot of judicial opinions that fall into the “soul-crushingly dull” category, I welcome more judges like Judge David Watt and Justice Don Willett.  The law doesn’t have to be boring.

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