Thursday, February 16, 2006

Music and Money

I recently discovered, via NPR, a website called wolfgangsvault.com. The site plays previously unreleased recordings (about 30 or so in a repeated loop) made by the 60's and 70's promoter, Bill Graham, from shows of that period. ("Wolfgang" was Graham's name before he came here from Nazi Germany and changed it.) Most are from long-gone venues like the Filmore, Winterland, and Filmore East. Among the groups are Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Chicago Transit Authority, James Taylor, and Hot Tuna. The site provides fascinating background. It was not unusal for some of the performers to play two shows in a night. And the shows were sometimes a grab bag: Woody Herman and Led Zeppelin in the same show? Imagine that crowd.

The recordings are often technically unpolished. That may be an understatement. But any lack of production value is outweighed by the unadorned vitality and frequent innocence that existed then in the musicians' youth and can neither be preserved nor recreated, no matter how much we boomers wish, and the Rolling Stones attempt.

The recordings and a bunch of memorabelia were discovered recently from Graham's estate. Or maybe it is just their commercial potential was discovered. Accompanying the music is the site's real purpose: to sell merchandise, the price of which is, to my taste, shockingly high. Posters of the shows seem to start at about $600 and go up substantially from there.

These recording give a sense of what rock music was like in its early years before it was co-opted by commerce and became background music for car commercials and filler between innings at baseball games. It is powerfully exuberant music that can for no apparent reason trigger a smile.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Woodford CountyTale

I am Pete Lambie’s lawyer, and have been a friend of Pete’s family for most of my life. In their January 28 editions, the Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star and Bloomington, Illinois, Pantagraph reported that the Woodford County State’s Attorney had disclosed the existence of an investigation into allegations that Pete, a county board member and township assessor, had unlawfully changed a fellow board member’s property tax assessments for political revenge. These allegations are not only unfounded, but the way in which they have been brought forth in the public forum is ethically repugnant.

Federal prosecutors, as I once was, are prohibited from even responding to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation. There are good reasons for this: An allegation, based on the skimpiest of evidence, is easily made (but not so easily investigated) and, if disclosed, widely reported, capable of destroying a fine reputation that took decades to build. Where does a man publicly accused like Pete go to respond and obtain the restoration of his good name? Will this newspaper provide adequate space to make a factually complete response to the allegations, and give the same visibility to the rebuttal that it gave to the allegations?

On January 3, Pete Lambie submitted to the Woodford County chief assessment officer two assessment reviews, suggesting that the assessments on two of the seven properties owned by a Woodford County Board member and his wife should be raised. The chief county assessment officer (a superior authority) on January 19 disagreed with Pete’s recommendations, and the assessments have not been changed.

Why did Pete request raising the assessments? One property, an income producing rental house in Spring Bay, had been assessed at $5,450 (by law, one-third of its true value), meaning that the estimated fair cash value of the property was $16,350. Pete saw on the county records that the house had been sold in 2000 for $60,000, and recommended raising the fair cash value to $54,120. Perhaps it is possible to buy a house in Spring Bay for under $20,000, perhaps not.

The other change Pete requested is more complicated. The acreage at issue has four separate tax identification numbers (one for each building) and two houses on it-one newer-looking (actually an older home that has been substantially remodeled) and one older. Both have the same street address on the county’s tax records. Pete saw the newer house, with its river view and about 2400 square feet of living space. He looked at his tax records and saw that the fair cash value on what he thought was the newer house was $81,420, a price he thought too low. He recommended that the assessment be increased to $143,740. Pete, however, had made a mistake. The tax records he was looking at were actually for the older house. In fact, the tax records for the newer house show its actual cash value, based on an appraisal by an employee of the county supervisor of assessments in November 2003, was $135,050, not substantially different from what Pete thought it should be.

Pete’s error on the one property is an understandable and (one would hope) excusable one in light of the complexity of the records, the two houses at the same address, and Pete’s 80 years. It was an error that Pete, when the documents were all sorted out, readily admits, and no one has suffered any detriment as a result.

The newspaper accounts suggested that the timing of Pete’s actions is suspect. So why did Pete assesses the property in January? On December 30, at the annual township assessor’s meeting, the county chief assessment officer provided him with a building permit showing the erection of a large horse barn on the board member’s property in 2005, an event that normally triggers a reassessment. In other words, Pete was doing the job he was elected to do.

The reluctance of people to enter public service is commonly and widely lamented. The experience of Pete Lambie in the past few days is not likely to encourage people to change that trend.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

Like myself after my past month's hiatus, the death penalty has returned. It has made its way back into the national consciousness with a couple of recent executions, the last one being that of Stanley "Tookie" Williams. The topic has been debated in sporadic repetition over the last three decades. About two-thirds of the American public is in favor of the death penalty, although I suspect that breaks down to about 90% "pro" below the Mason-Dixon Line and close to an even split elsewhere. In a country that grows ever more homogeneous as we all listen to the same music, eat the same fattening food, watch the same crap on tv, and don't read the same newspapers, why is it that we have such divergent views on life and death? Overall, I sense the public is a little more ambivalent about the death penalty than it once was.

My own view of the death penalty is analogous to eating red meat. I like a medium rare steak, but I'd opt for tofu if I had to go out and butcher a steer to get that t-bone. Years ago, in one of my father's efforts to approximate the experiences of his early years on the hard scrabble farms of southern Illinois, he would buy an occasional hog for slaughter, which we did on a few chilly Sunday afternoons. Butchering is never a pretty task up close, and for days meat was not appetizing. In a few days the memories of the killing and the blood subsided, and the pork chops and sausage again tasted good.

Most proponents of the death penalty are like that. They are not the ones administering the lethal doses of chemicals or sitting with the prisoner in the final minutes of a life gone wrong, detoured into the hell of prison, and punctuated by a final and grotesque exclamation of notoriety. Few death row inmates merit sympathy, although DNA testing has shown that innocent people do indeed get convicted, and at a higher rate than anyone should accept. A few of the trials which produced the death penalty have displayed shocking errors. Our criminal justice system is far from perfect. We may soon learn what is still a suspicion- that at least one innocent person has been put to death.

Over this past weekend, prompted by the recent movie, Capote, I found and avidly read the original four-part series of In Cold Blood in the New Yorker DVD set my daughters had kindly given me for Christmas after a few hints. (It's a wonderful set for any reader of that great magazine.) The series ran in 1965, less than a year after Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were hanged in Kansas for the 1959 murders of the Clutter family on their farm. It's a riveting story, as well-told as any you'll ever read, and one that does not automatically leave its readers (or at least this one) siding against the death penalty for Smith and Hickock, who were stone cold, remorseless killers. "To understand all is to forgive all" is the old saying ("Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner"). Not necessarily, but the absence of understanding makes forgiveness infinitely harder.

Despite the crudity of our current music and public discourse, we are overall a more genteel society. We don't hang prisoners in the town square before large crowds, as was done in the 1920's in this state. Opposition to the death penalty is a psychologically easier path, but perhaps not invariably the one called for in every circumstance, even in a nation that would view itself as compassionate. It is a hard world in which we live and easier decisions are not always correct.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Maybe I Should Save This for Law Day

I will not be in the audience for the Peoria County Bar Association Christmas party later this month. This has always been a rather raucous event, highlighted (in a very loose usage) by about a dozen or so skits lampooning local lawyers and judges. The party has been going on forever. I first went about 25 years ago, thought it was funny, but stopped going until about 10 years ago, when I resumed. But no more.

Perhaps I'm just getting old and crotchety (well, no "perhaps" about it), but as an old radio character said, "'Tain't funny, McGee." What it is, however, is increasingly profane, cruel, and tired, with some of the same old lines trotted out year after year. Some judges aren't very decisive, some lawyers are crude and some are poor dressers. You could set your watch by most of these gags.

Longevity does not necessarily equal tradition. If you had a toenail fungus that you couldn't seem to throw, I doubt you'd be celebrating it. I'm starting to feel that way about the Bar Association's party.

It is hard enough to maintain some shred of dignity as a member of a profession that seems hell-bent on eradicating it. There is an old lawyer joke to the effect of, "What do a lawyer and an individual sperm have in common? They both have a one-in-a-million chance of being a human being." With each passing year the wisdom of this riddle is more apparent. It is way too facile, and the numbers are slightly off, but the truth is that more than a few lawyers are thoroughly miserable creatures who barely qualify for homo sapiens status. What's more, the nature of our adversarial system rewards members of the profession who have in profusion those traits and dubious skills which are least desirable in polite society- avarice, perfidy, manipulation, and indignation. The reasons are Darwinian: Clients, particularly those in or facing litigation, want a lawyer who embodies some of those less desirable qualities. It is not unusual for a client to say, in seeking a lawyer, "I want the meanest s.o.b. I can find, who can torture and chop my opponent into sub-atomic pieces." Legal skill is secondary.

Later, some of those clients, like pit bull owners, find that the qualities they prized in selecting a lawyer have worked to the clients' detriment. "What, I though you were going to be fair in charging me!" Interestingly, just recently the Florida Supreme Court ruled that lawyers could not use pit bull imagery in their ads. The court said it was demeaning to the profession. I think it gave them an unfair competitive advantage. See
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=pit+bull+florida+attorney&btnG=Google+Search

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Christmas Cards

I began doing Christmas cards tonight. I suspect this will further reduce the amount of time I have to devote to Lawlife. Sorry, but look at it this way, if I had more time I would have written about the death penalty.

Writing the cards, which many people consider sheer drudgery, if they bother at all, is for me the highlight of the season. I confess that Christmas is not my favorite holiday. Too much work is my most frequent complaint. A psychiatrist would probably be able to trace this back to some disappointing childhood Christmas. My happiest memories are those Christmas Eves spent at my grandparents' cramped, tiny house with its bubble lights and short needle tree (replaced later by a classic aluminum one with a color wheel). My grandparents made these complex 3D paper stars (kind of an 50's origami) that few people could seem to get the hang of folding. The stars were then dipped in hot paraffin, sprinkled with glitter and hung on every tree of every person they ever knew. They were locally famous for their stars for a Christmas or two. I wonder if anyone in my family still has a star?

The big event of the evening was a pinochle game between my father and three uncles in the basement. The game went on far too long for the kids taste, as I recall. I vaguely recollect that some family squabble between my dad and my Uncle Bud temporarily ended the Christmas Eve family dinner. Then my grandfather died. The family didn't get together much after that. Perhaps there were only four or five Christmas Eves at my grandparents. It's hard to say. Everything seems larger in childhood.

My pleasure in writing the cards is more recent. In December 1997 I was taking a deposition in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which I found to be a clean, pretty town with lots of granite and ice encrusted mountains of snow. After the deposition of the hospital administrator I had some extra time and discovered a nice book, toy, and gift shop with interesting cards, including a box of Christmas cards from the Saturn Press. These cards were on thick, cream-colored paper and seemed almost handmade.

Saturn Press is on Swan's Island, five miles off the Maine coast. The address alone evokes a pleasant shiver at this time of year; I can almost hear the crash of the surf and smell the pines. They don't have a website, and I have come to like that. Each November I look through their catalog, and call in my order. The cards arrived today. As I open the package I picture it being ferried from the island in the cold, salty air.

So, today Christmas begins for me. Writing a card is a simple thing. It is enough in a darkening season to infuse a belief that the sun will appear again, the days will grow longer, and there will be warmth. And one day, baseball. Then life will begin, again.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Day After Thanksgiving and Animal Stories

The parade has passed me by. Literally. A short time ago the marching bands played their final notes in the downtown Santa Claus parade, the nation's oldest, and the last freezing members of the audience fled to warmth, leaving a haunting overcast silence. The office is closed, and except for an occasional bus that rolls past my window and the Scott Joplin music on the radio (yesterday was his birthday), it is quiet.

The parade is a vestige of an era and places that no longer exist. In those pre-shopping mall days Santa arrived from Chicago on a sleek silver train on the long-since bankrupt Rock Island Line's Rocket. He disembarked at the riverfront station, now a martini bar if it hasn't closed, and rode a float through the crowded streets. (These are not hazy childhood memories. I have a picture of the parade on my office wall. The crowd is like Times Square on New Year's Eve.) Santa got off the float to go into the seven story Block & Kuhl's department store, which later became Carson, Pirie Scott & Co., and now is a bank and office building. He would then take up December residence on the fifth floor, near the toy department, where, to my good fortune, my Aunt Brenda, a stout, English war bride, worked. Aunt Brenda was alternately jolly and profane, but her occupation caused me to rate her quite high. Now the parade ends with Santa being hauled out Interstate 74 to Northwoods Mall. I am supremely thankful I had no child marching in the parade and compelling my teeth-shattering attendance.

The chill and the gray put me in mind of Thomas Hood's poem, "No!":

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,No comfortable feel in any member -No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -November!

But I have two animal stories to tell before I finish, and maybe they will crack November's gloom. The first happened yesterday. As I was raking leaves in the backyard, I heard the side chain link fence shake. Neither dog (I was watching an extra) was near the fence. On closer inspection I found a rabbit that had been trying to squeeze through an opening. He'd made it halfway, but was unable to get his rear legs through the hole. I pushed and he cried, but his rear end was still stuck. A trip to the garage for some wire-cutting pliers, a couple of snips, and the rabbit was soon free and on his way.

The second happened on a Thanksgiving a few years ago. At that time, my sister and I were still keeping chickens on her property in the country. My sister would no doubt point out, somewhat accurately, that I merely bought the chickens and she did everything else except the Sunday afternoon collection of eggs. Sexing of baby chicks is still an inexact science and of the chickens I bought, there were two surviving roosters, even though we had requested and paid the hatchery at least a 25 cent premium for hens. Two roosters does not really make for an entirely happy coop. The term "pecking order" is no pop sociological invention, as anyone who has kept chickens and studied them for any period knows.

At this point in the narrative a brief defense of my sanity is probably in order. I maintain that it is possible to fascinated by chickens and other farm animals and not be imbecilic. E.B.White, you may recall, made a pretty good living off the royalties of writing about his barnyard observations. Is that good enough for you?

Now, back to Crossbeak, one of the two roosters, decidedly the less handsome and certainly the loser in the pecking order scheme. The other roster had 15 or so roosters in his harem; Crossbeak, in desperate need of orthodontia, had none. There being no Dr. Phil of chickens to assist in raising Crossbeak's self-esteem, my sister did a very generous thing: she exiled Crossbeak and two hens to an old chicken coop. His newly found pride was evident, although he was never quite a companionable chicken. He would still attack anyone who came near his coop, his hens or their eggs.

Crossbeak's Eden came to an end one sunny Thanksgiving. Before dinner (ours), a hawk attempted to feast on Crossbeak's hens. He fought valiantly and the hens survived. Crossbeak did not. I think it is evidence of the esteem in which we held that bird that we did not give the slightest thought to doing anything with Crossbeak except giving him a decent burial.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving, Again

Thanksgiving is a fine holiday to my way of thinking. Not commercial, like Christmas, unless you're a turkey farmer (rancher?). And any holiday where you don't have to buy presents is okay by me. Not religious, either, like Easter. Not lovey-dovey, like Valentines Day or New Years Eve. Or morbid. See, e.g., Memorial Day. I'd rank it right up there with the Fourth of July, except the weather's usually not as good. The holiday is just about being thankful, and most of us, by virtue of being alive, can at least muster up thanks for that. Even if we harbor a few doubts that mere existence in this vale of tears merits an entire day devoted to gratitude, we can at least pretend so. The holiday doesn't require much psychological effort, especially if you aren't cooking. It's 24 hours. There is no "Thanksgiving Season." That the day signifies the start of that other season is a damn shame, but so it goes.

My appreciation for the holiday has only been enhanced by my divorce. Thanksgiving, which conjures up the Norman Rockwell painting, would seem a sad thing in a family of divided parents. It was for me, at first, until the memories of past dinners and naps to endless Detroit Lions football games faded. But there are worse things than a modification of unrelenting sameness on the fourth Thursday in November. I no longer know in advance what the day will bring. I assume that at least a part of the day will be spent in the company of some family and some friends, and part of my day will be spent doing something else. Today my nephew, Jeff, helped me cut a large branch off the leaf factory in my front yard, otherwise known as a white oak. It is a bright but terribly cold day, and it was easy to smell the sap of the cut branch.

It is a day of memories, more so than most holidays. I remember at least a couple morning football games at St Mary's Church in Metamora and catching one or two touchdown passes. Anyone (most were 15-25) who wanted to play showed up, teams were picked and two games were played. Did we play tackle or touch? I suspect tackle, or I might still be trying to play.

And I remember quail hunting with my father for a an few hours in the morning. We did not go far as we had to get back before dinner, but even a short time in the woods and fields in the company of the dogs was enough.

It's a wonderful day. May you savor it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Criminalization of...Life

The differences between moral failings, civil wrongs that entitle the aggrieved party to money damages, and crimes are not always as clear as readers of the Ten Commandments might wish. Nor are they absolute over time. Adultery was once a capital offense, and still is for women in a few societies. (There are also places where it is a badge of achievement.) Acts of fraud and dishonesty are particularly incapable of easy categorization, even by those of us who have spent years trying to decipher these things. Is an act criminal, or even deserving of ethical reprimand? Some of us have made a living identifying all the facets of certain conduct and attempting to persuade a prosecutor, jury, or judge that it does or does not merit the harsh sanction of a prison sentence.

While the eventual reach of the criminal law cannot be predicted, the increasing tendency in the last 25 years to categorize certain business or governmental related conduct as criminal is apparent. Think of Enron and the corporate scandals of the past few years, along with some of the decades-long sentences that have been imposed on the malefactors involved. Why certain executives have been acquitted while others received sentences equivalent to, or exceeding, those of murderers in most countries is difficult to explain. Good lawyers or bad juries are among the most frequently identified suspects.

Which brings me to two trials of former high government officials. One is under way, the other will start sometime in 2006, I presume. In the trial of former Governor George Ryan witnesses tell of giving money or favors to Mr. Ryan, his friends and family. The government claims the money was given to receive government action- a contract, a lease- thereby defrauding the citizens of the state of their right to honest, unbiased decisions by elected officials. The defense claims, and the witnesses seem to concur, that no quid pro quo existed. Which raises the difficult question, if everyone, including most citizens of the state, knows why money or favors are being given (but nothing is verbalized), is it still fraud? How is this any different from campaign contributions, some of which have eventually been used for personal expenses? In a few months- the trial is going slow- a jury will tell us whether this was or wasn't fraud. Will state government be the better? Democracy and powerful government may not be able to coexist in an affluent, capitalist society. Any bets on the winner?

The second trial is that of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, which grows more convoluted by the day. Although the morning line after the indictment had Libby headed for the Graybar Hotel and Patrick Fitzgerald named to the sexiest man list (wait, that happened), it would be premature to think that Libby is certain to be convicted. I write this with full knowledge that the government's conviction rate approaches 95%, and Mr. Fitzgerald is far from a routinely competent prosecutor. The indictment, http://www.thesmokinggun.com/graphics/pdf/libbyidict.pdf, charges obstruction of an investigation, perjury and making false statements to the FBI. In each of these offenses is an element of materiality, meaning that the allegedly false statement must have been capable of influencing the investigators or grand jury. Libby's alleged lie was that he heard from the press about Valerie Wilson's status as an undercover CIA, when in reality he dug up the information himself and fed it to the press. His ostensible motive for the lie was to throw the investigation off track: he didn't "out" Mrs. Wilson, the press did, and besides it was common knowledge anyway.

But this is where materiality clouds the analysis. The government knows the truth now, and has decided not to prosecute Mr Libby or anyone else for outing Mrs. Wilson. (The offense requires the disclosing official to have rather specific knowledge of the undercover agent's status.) So how was the lie material? Whether Libby told the truth or a lie, the same result- no prosecution- would have resulted. But this is too nuts and bolts to attract much attention.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On An Obituary

A few days ago I noticed the obituary of Kathyrn Davis. She died at 53. I did not know Ms. Davis, but I tend to look a little more closely at obituaries of people about my age, and wonder why they are no longer here and I am. I saw that she lived in New York City, but had grown up in Avon, Illinois, a small town about 50 miles west of Peoria. Her parents still lived there. She had gone to the University of Illinois at about the same time I had, along with 35,000 or so other students, and she'd done far better than most of us in a difficult major that few women then or now tackle - engineering. She had won several honors and awards in the College of Engineering. The obit said after ten years in engineering she got an MBA from Harvard and worked at a freelance marketing and consulting firm, KAD. It said she liked music and donations could be made to a church in Avon.

If I had the ability to put a pdf on this posting I would put her obituary here, so you could read it. Or could could go to the Peoria Journal Star and pay something to look at it. News stories are free, but you must pay to read about dead people.

The occasional treasure of the internet lies in its silent and untold waves of memories, ours and others, waiting to be discovered. A cyber-facsimile of parts of Kathryn Davis' life is still there: http://www.kadalyst.com/afterhours_stuffs.html# You might expect whatever lessons life offers up to be found in the stories of life on the obituary page, but someone has to write those stories. There was a story here that might have interested more than only the people who grieved her death, but no one wrote it and so the story will not be more widely known. So I content myself with a few easily found conclusions and questions:

  • Kathryn Davis, unlike most people, had an ability to make a living with both numbers, first, and later with the written word. Does anyone tire of the writing and turn to math?
  • The University of Illinois can transport people from Avon to Manhattan. It, and the few great public universities like it, must be preserved and accessible to all on the fairest basis possible, or America will be some other country, not the one I thought it was.
  • At one time, talent alone afforded its owners ample opportunities in this nation. Large talents, vast possibilities. Why, collectively, would we want that to change? Can we endure as a nation if that is no longer the case?

Every life teaches, but there is always more.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Cameras Coming Soon to a Courtroom Near You?

Following up on my posting of November 2, 2005, re webcams in courtrooms, the House has now passed a bill permitting federal judges to allow televising court proceedings at all levels, including the district court. The decision would be left up to the presiding judge, and could be done on a case-by-case basis. The bill passed the House easily (375-45) and is in committee hearing in the Senate. The Senate version of the bill is brief and may be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:1:./temp/~c109P3lDGQ::

The Administration opposes the bill, stating that it could compromise security. Possibly, in a few cases, but this is the sort of decision that federal judges routinely make and does not justify a blanket ban on cameras. The White House's position is at
http://www.whitehouse.gov/query.html?col=colpics&qt=hr+1751&submit.x=15&submit.y=18