Saturday, June 30, 2007

The executive privilege hoax

On Friday, for the second time in his presidency, President Bush invoked "executive privilege" to block a request from Congress to turn over documents that investigators are seeking to determine the role of high-ranking White House and Department of Justice officials in the U.S. attorneys scandal. The first time came earlier this year in March.

I sat down to write about this latest, even more futile exercise in constitutional dishonesty, then realized that I must have written about this the first time it happened. Well, I did. I reprint what I wrote three months ago. Add a few more names -- Monica Goodling, Rachel Brand and Sara Taylor, for starters -- to the list of players in this psycho-political drama; but besides that, what I wrote then is equally applicable today. The executive privilege defense is as indefensible now as it was then.

A snowjob on executive privilege

In 1791, President George Washington told a congressional committee investigating a botched military operation by Major General Arthur St. Clair in the Northwest Territories that he could withhold sensitive material that "would injure the public." In that particular case, he chose to released the requested documents anyway. But five years later, Washington refused to release administration documents detailing negotiations of the Jay Treaty with France, claiming that Congress lacked constitutional authority to compel him to turn over the documents. Both decisions are considered the first invocation of executive privilege. For the record, executive privilege did not receive its formal name until 1958, when Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, acting in his role as a circuit judge, used the phrase to describe the executive branch's refusal to turn over documents requested by a private corporation.

Executive privilege received its most complete definition in United States v. Nixon (1974), the Watergate tapes case. A unanimous Court rejected the administration's argument that executive privilege permitted it to withhold tapes and documents subpoenaed by the Senate as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. You can read the whole opinion if you want; but here is the best part:

"The President's need for complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference from the court. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished by production of such material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obliged to provide."

Learning more from Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, and Harriet Miers, a White House attorney whose portfolio was limited to personnel matters, about why political appointees in Alberto Gonzales's Department of Justice decided to fire eight U.S. attorneys and their reasons for lying about it ever since the story broke certainly does not enter the realm of national security.

Remember the pre-impeachment gamesmanship between the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress over President Clinton's decision to invoke executive privilege to prevent two key aides and his wife from appearing before Ken Starr to further illuminate the details behind the world's most famous blow job? Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, rejected Clinton's executive privilege argument that permitting his aides to cooperate with Starr would jeopardize the "candid" nature of presidential conversations. Judge Johnson had no problem with Democrats behaving badly -- she was the federal judge who sentenced Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) to prison for siphoning off campaign funds.

Judge Johnson got it right. Don't believe me? Just ask Tony Snow, President Bush's current press secretary who, in 1998, was a Fox News "journalist" and syndicated columnist:

"Evidently, Mr. Clinton wants to shield virtually any communications that take place within the White House compound on the theory that all such talk contributes in some way, shape or form to the continuing success and harmony of an administration. Taken to its logical extreme, that position would make it impossible for citizens to hold a chief executive accountable for anything. He would have a constitutional right to cover up. Chances are that the courts will hurl such a claim out, but it will take time."

"One gets the impression that Team Clinton values its survival more than most people want justice and thus will delay without qualm. But as the clock ticks, the public's faith in Mr. Clinton will ebb away for a simple reason: Most of us want no part of a president who is cynical enough to use the majesty of his office to evade the one thing he is sworn to uphold -- the rule of law."

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 29, 1998.


In the coming days, weeks and months -- however long this game of, "fuck me? no, fuck you?" between Democrats (and a few Republicans) in Congress and the White House lasts -- you can guaran-damn-tee it that Bush apologists in the broadcast and print media will fall over themselves to justify the executive privilege claim. Just as Clinton had no basis whatsoever to refuse Starr's (unfortunate, petty, politically motivated but completely legal) request for his aides to appear before him, neither does the current administration have a constitutional basis to resist a congressionally-issued subpoena. It doesn't help that President Bush has already "offered" Rove and Miers for private "interviews" with members of Congress. He undermines his executive privilege claim right there by saying he's fine with having his aides talk "informally" about the U.S. attorneys flap, but will "fight to the mat" to prevent them from testifying under oath.

Tony Snow doesn't even want to make transcripts available of these "interviews," wondering "[w]hat do you gain from -- what do you gain from the transcript? And his answer is: Not much."

Please, please . . . pretty please . . . can someone find evidence that Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Paul McNulty, Kyle Sampson . . . anyone, received a blow job from a White House intern? That would get the Republicans moving.

ADDED: Count the number of times the Washington Post, in its lead editorial this morning (Saturday, June 30th) uses the word "should" to describe how Congress and the White House should resolve this stand-off. Typical, mushy, "gee, let's not forget about the process" mish-mash from the Post. At least it didn't call for a bi-partisan commission headed by Bob Dole and Donna Shalala to address the issue -- the Post's usual answer to everything.

ADDED: The New York Times lead editorial this morning (Sunday, July 1st) offers a much more pointed critique of the Bush administration's bogus executive privilege claim.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Chief Justice LSAT

Emily Bazelon of Slate has an excellent piece on the not-so-surprising conservatism of Chief Justice John Roberts. I did not understand two years ago and do not understand now how anyone professing a moderate, much less liberal, approach to constitutional law believed that Roberts would walk gingerly over the Court's precedents that conservatives were and are anxious to overturn.

Roberts was appointed for a reason. So was Sam Alito. They were carefully vetted and chosen over other candidates who also did well on their LSATs, had high GPAs, and established themselves in the upper-echelon of their professional careers. Lots of people are smart. The Bush administration knew that Roberts and Alito would deliver the votes on the issues closest to their hearts. And they have.

Bazelon's article is note-for-note one I could have written as well. I will have more to say about Roberts, Alito, judicial selection, the con job that is "judicial temperment," and more shortly when I offer my own analysis of the October 2006 Term.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The conservative case to impeach Dick Cheney

Bruce Fein worked in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. For people who live in Washington, you know him as one of those always-available "conservative legal scholars" ready to dispatch a quote to the news media after a Supreme Court decision or some legal matter involving a controversial public policy issue.

Fein offers a case in Slate for impeaching Dick Cheney that goes beyond anything you might read from Beltway liberal commentators. There's no holding back. Read it here.

The 2006 Supreme Court Term comes to a close -- and the conservatives win again and again and . . .

The Court finishes the October 2006 Term today. So far this morning it has announced three decisions by 5-4 majorities -- two for the conservatives and one for the liberals. Justice Kennedy is in majority all three times.

In order of importance . . .

Chief Justice Roberts announces that race cannot be a factor in voluntary integration plans undertaken by school districts in Seattle and Louisville. He is joined by Alito, Scalia and Thomas. Kennedy concurs in the result but does not agree that the government lacked a "compelling interest" in addressing prior discrimination and on-going racial disparities in public school assignments. The opinion, including the dissents, is 185 pages long. But here is an idea of where Roberts is coming from: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Justice Kennedy writes for the Court in an anti-trust case, holding that minimum pricing plans implicating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act must be judged by the rule-of-reason analysis. All right . . . I know most of you don't care about that. Important, is the Court's decision to overrule a 1911 case that had formed the law in this area.

Real-time reporting and commentary are best found at SCOTUS.Blog. Get to it here.

I have never been a "Chicken Little" type when it comes to the Court's rightward movement. But I think this term indicates that a real, substantive and dramatic changes are on the horizon.

Commentary is forthcoming . . . promise . . . but there is a lot to digest.

ADDED: Start here, with Slate's "Breakfast Table" conversation between Walter Dellinger and Dahlia Lithwick.

The fourth branch of government -- reconsidered

The White House issued a statement yesterday confirming that vice-president Dick Cheney is, in fact, an executive branch officer. So far, so good.

True to form, however, the White House released a statement this morning announcing it will not comply with the subpoena issued by Senator Patrick Leahy requested documents relevant to the on-going investigation of the U.S. Attorneys that were targeted for dismissal last fall by some combination of White House and Justice Department apparatchiks. The Bush administration offers "executive privilege" as a defense.

There is nothing "privileged" about this information. Colleagues, dust off U.S. v. Nixon (1974), because we might be going down that road again.

Papa Gets His Funk On

For those of you that know my father-in-law, you already know that Papa is the coolest 81 year-old in the universe. For those of you that don't know him, watch Papa gettin' his funk on before a non-sellout crowd at California Tortilla in downtown Bethesda last week.

Can I get suspended with pay?

This picture was taken near a public middle school by a government employee, on garbage and recycling pick-up day and after I took my kids to the camp bus (private). I did take a Centrum multi-vitamin about 30 minutes before I had the picture taken, but there is no credible medical evidence that Centrum is a gateway drug to, well, you know . . . other herbal supplements.

If I can take my iPod and Treo to prison, I can do the time. Bring it on . . .

My T-shirt is courtesy of my Landmark Law Cases class of 2007. Thanks again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Signs of unintelligent life in the universe

Sometimes I really wonder what has happened to our national intelligence quotient that has resulted in some of the following signs and warnings I have encountered over the last few days . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

In the men's locker room at the American University Bender Fitness Center yesterday, I looked into a stall to see two massive contractor-size garbage bags wrapped around the toilet. A huge "X" of yellow tape bearing the inscription, "Police Line Do Not Cross" hung across the space slightly above and in front of the toilet, warning trespassers to stay away. I closed the door, which had been ajar, to find an "Out of Order" sign posted on the front.

I hope the toilet was just out of order. If not, I hope the authorities catch the bastard who maimed this facility. Keep an eye on the "Most Wanted List" at your local post office.

* * * * * * * * * *

On the protective glass of the Montgomery County-operated Cabin John Ice Rink are now multiple, oversized signs with really big letters informing skaters of a new rule . . . are you ready for this?


Oh, gee, why not? How could talking on a cell phone possibly pose a safety threat during a public skate or a pick-up hockey game? And yes, there is already a posted rule forbidding the use of portable stereos while skating. But being Montgomery County, someone will not doubt argue that an iPod is not a portable stereo and thus is exempt from the rule. Perhaps it will be the guy that used to skate with his iPod in a closed pick-up game I play in on Sunday nights. He never passed anyway, so what difference did it make that he couldn't hear anyone?

* * * * * * * * * *

Why do stores post signs that say, "No Shoplifting." I understand the sign, "Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent of the Law." Are there stores that actually permit shoplifting? Have you ever seen a store with a sign reading, "Shoplifting Permitted, But If We Catch You Stealing Something We'll Make You Put It Back," because I haven't.

* * * * * * * * * *

The legal drinking age is 21 nationwide. Bars and restaurants commonly post signs that remind customers that you must be 21 to buy and drink alcohol. 7-Eleven has signs near the cash register that warn customers not to attempt to purchase alcohol if they are under 21.

Fine. But 7-11 has an addendum to the "you must be 21 sign" that says, "All persons under 30 shall be required to show their I.D." Why? If you are between 21 and 30, aren't you legally able to drink? Why not all persons under 40, or 53, or 86?

* * * * * * * * * *

There is a convenience store near the Rockville Ice Arena that has the following sign, "Fake I.D. To Purchase Cigarette (sic) Not Permitted." Does that mean fake I.D.s to purchase beer and wine are permitted? I never remember informing a clerk or bouncer during my under-age years that I had a fake I.D. They knew my I.D. was fake; they just didn't care. The next time a cashier asks you for an I.D. when you charge something or buy cigarettes or beer, ask them, "Do you mind if use a fake I.D. or would you like my real one?" and see what happens.

* * * * * * * * * *

Tonight, the jazz group I play in, Ocio Jazz, will play at Twins Jazz, located at 1344 U St., NW, from 8-11. There is a chalkboard at the top of the stairs before you enter the dining room that will say, "$5 cover charge." Someone will ask one of the hosts, "Do we really have to pay a cover?"

No, you really don't have to shell out five whole dollars to hear music. You don't have to stop at STOP signs either. Go ahead and open the emergency door during flight . . . drink Drano and see what happens. . . brush your teeth with Ben-Gay and get that exhilarating feeling . . . ignore the warnings and just live a little.

ADDED: Last night, a guy came into Twins about 7.45 p.m., 15 minutes before we started playing. He asked the server if he had to pay the $5 cover, since he ordered his dinner before the set started. The server responded that, yes, he did have to pay the cover. He fussed a little bit, and then said, "Well, since I'm traveling for work and not paying for dinner anyway, I'll pay the cover, but I don't think it's fair."

* * * * * * * * * *

The other day I witnessed a lady ask a police officer the following question, "Is the street one way only when there is traffic? Can I drive down it if no else is coming?"

Give the police officer credit. She told her the street was always one way. Me? I would have told her to use her best judgment and see what happened.

Fun and games at the CIA

The New York Times features a three-page article this morning highlighting some of the C.I.A.'s greatest hits from the past 50 years -- failed assassination attempts, domestic surveillance of suspected enemies or too-nosy reporters, hiring Mafia figures to make undesirable foreign leaders "go away," and other choice morsels.

Dr. Evil -- tree hugger

The fourth and final installment in the Washington Post series on Dick "What's a Three-Eyed Fish Species Compared to More Money for My Friends?" Cheney focuses on his No Tree Left Behind environmental policies.

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman's articles have been illuminating and depressing -- the hallmarks of good investigative reporting. But why did the Post wait so long to confirm what more skeptical observers of Cheney have known for years?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Fast times at the Supreme Court

Dear Chief Justice Roberts:

There I was, man, just munchin' on some donuts on another cold day in Juneau, psyched to see the Olympic Torch come cruisin' through our town, hangin' with my buds when, like, bam we decide to hoist this banner that said, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Whoa! What an awesome idea because, like, we were just wantin' to get on television to let everyone know that, "Hey, here in Juneau, we're raising a little hell and take some serious names. We might be in freakin' Alaska (Dude, can I say freakin' in my letter? 'cause I'm not, like, on school grounds or anything) but tell me we don't know how to party!"

Then comes the buzz kill, dude. Like, Principal Morse comes runnin' -- and I mean runnin' man, like she was in the Olympics herself -- and says, "Hey, take down your sign!" So all my buds are, like, whatever, you're the boss and they bolt. But I'm like, "Hey, man, no freakin' way (that's cool to say, cause like I'm not even in high school anymore, right?) because I want to get on TV." And Principal Morse is, like, "Young man, in my office first thing," and I'm, like, "Oh, shit, my ass is cooked." Dude, I was right -- ten days at home, su-freakin'-spended!

Principal Morse tells me that my sign is about "promoting illegal drug use," and I'm, like, are you freakin' kidding me? It's not about anything. I kinda just lifted the words off a snowboard. Dude, if you've never snowboarded, you ought to because, man, it rocks. Dude, I told Principal Morse I just wanted to get on television and she's, like, no you don't, young man, you're advocating drug use, and I'm, like, for who because I've never partied with Jesus and I don't know anyone who has. You know what this whole thing reminds me of, man? The Beatles and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Yeah, because when that song came out everyone was, like, hey man, it's about LSD, you know the trippy drug, lysergic acid diethylamide? And John Lennon's like, no, it's not man, it's about a painting my son, Julian, did at school. Dude, Paul backed him up on it. So did Ringo! Ringo, man, Ringo! And seriously, the chick's name was Lucy Richardson, you can see the diamonds in the sky and everything. But everybody was, like, it doesn't matter what they say the song is about, it's about what we think the song is about! Do you realize that there are still people who don't know that Lucy was really a classmate of Julian Lennon? I don't know, man, but you strike me as the kind who thought the Beatles were too psychedelic after Rubber Soul. Me, that's when it got really interesting. Here, look at the drawing and tell me if that reminds you of anytime you ever tripped in your younger days:

Dude, come on now! That's just some cool little kid shit.

Now, like, since high school and everything I've learned about this constitutional theory called originalism, which is, like, dude, it's all about the framers' intent of what the Constitution meant when they wrote up this pact over some hard cider and Madeira in Philadelphia, like, thousands of years ago, like, in 1878 or 1787 or something. Like my buddy Jeff Spicoli once said, the framers were like, "Hey, if we don't get some cool rules, pronto, we're going to take your bogus rules and make our own." And so they did, man, they did! So here's what has me like so confused: why are you, like, saying that what I said my sign was for -- just to get on TV and that it wasn't really about doing drugs or telling my home boys, "all we need are some tasty buds and some snow banks and we're ready to party" -- isn't really what my sign was for? It's like when you criticize other judges for saying the Constitution means something that the guys who wrote it never intended for it to mean. Remember when you said you were just an umpire? Dude, I think you need to get your strike zone checked out!

Here's a true story: a long time ago, a friend of mine was listening to side 2 of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, like when they're we're albums (did you ever have any albums? You strike me as more of a 45 guy). And he actually looked through a real prism at the 1.38 mark of "Brain Damage" and thought he saw God. What happened, dude, was that he got blinded by a headlight that his old man flashed into his room so that he could catch him doing real bong hits (Jesus wasn't there, though, 'cause this guy was, like, Jewish). That was some tricked-up shit but it was all cool in the end because his old man was, like, "where did you get that shit? and my friend was, like, "dude, I cop my own shit" and the father was, like, "hey, I don't care what you do outside the house but don't do that shit in here, not with your sister around. And in 48 hours you'd better have a Goddamn job!" Chief, the kid had a job 48 hours later . . . workin' the drive-in window at the Del Taco across the street. But it was while before he listened to the Floyd again because the whole thing -- seeing God and everything -- definitely freaked his ass OUT! Like, Chief, if you look below you'll see how like the whole album went right through his body . . . you talk about an experience!

Like, if you're in college, and you wear shirt on campus that says, "Olympic Beer Drinking Team," or a hat that says, "Miller Time," and you're not even, like 21 or anything, can you get in trouble for promoting under-age drinking? I saw this chick once wearing a shirt that said, "Vagina Monologues," and, I'm like, man, do college girls, like, let you talk to their vagina, because that's some weird shit, even for me. I mean, what do you say? Like, "what's happening?" or "anything new?" Dude, I walked around muttering to myself for a whole semester, trying to figure out what to say to a vagina. Like, when I said something to piss off my friends and they said something like, "Hey, man, bite me!" I know they really didn't want me to bite them. Or did they? Small talk with the ladies was never my strength. Talking to a vagina? Snap, crackle and pop! I almost transferred.

Wait . . . wait . . . wait, man. Hear that? I'm listening to the Floyd through my headphones now. Okay, check this out, "The lunatic is on the grass/The lunatic is on the grass/Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs/Got to keep the loonies on the path." Do you have any idea what that means? Is that about Syd? Like, if a kid wore those words on a shirt to a public school could a reasonable person conclude that the kid was promoting drug use? I don't know, dude, not anymore.

Who is this "reasonable person" that gets to decide what words and phrases mean? Remember Manfred Mann's Earth Band? They had this song, man, called, "Blinded by the Light," and there was, like, this phrase that everyone thought said, "wrapped up like a douche like a runner in the night," but what kind of sense does that make? I don't even think that's what the song said. On the other hand, is it some kind of cryptic message about feminine hygiene?

Gotta tell you, Chief, you done handed down (that's Southern slang, as in, "Ole' J.R.'s done gotten himself in trouble again.") one weird opinion. Students have the right to offer their opinions in school or at school-sanctioned events as long as those opinions don't have anything to do with illegal drugs, which you remind us are a scourge. But, like, if you're at a football game and some chick is wearing a T-shirt that says, "Hottie," or some guy has a T-shirt that says,
"Don't Make Me Jerk Off Tonight," what should Principal Morse do? Or if some preppy guy wears the tennis shirt on the right, made by Boast and costing $44, to school are you gonna send him home or let him hang with the J. Crew crowd? Do you just send the guys in shop class -- I mean "Industrial Arts" home for wearing Bob Marley shirts or having Steve Miller's "The Joker" ("I'm a Joker/I'm a smoker/I'm a midnight toker/I play my music on the run") as their ring tones?

I realize, Chief, that's there always one student you have every term that you need to make an example of and that, like, this time I'm your guy. If I made a banner that read, "Louis Armstrong Smoked Pot And So Should You," which he did . . . all the time in the early days (his most creative period), long before the "Hello, Dolly" act made him famous to squares, would you have allowed Principal Morse to suspend me for telling the truth?

Gnarly, dude. Just gnarly.

A friend and patriot

More on Dr. Evil

Part three of the Washington Post's four-part series on Dick "Five, Count 'Em, Five Deferments" Cheney is here. Dana Milbank has a hilarious piece on White House spokeswoman Dana Perino's flailing effort yesterday to defend the vice-president's announcement last week that he is not part of the executive branch.

Eugene Robinson has a great piece on the Op-Ed page this morning on Cheney. Responding to queries about why he hasn't called for impeachment proceedings against The Decider, Robinson offered a three-word reason: President Dick Cheney.

CNN = Celebrity News Network?

So what's new in the world this morning?

The Supreme Court's evisceration of the First Amendment in three separate cases yesterday? Nope.

More mindless deaths in Iraq . . . the psychological toll the war is taking on Iraqi children . . . or the consequences that the war is having for military families in the United States? Nope.

The continuing and largely successful effort by Dick Cheney to take over the world? Nope.

Another looming disaster in the Middle East, this time between Fatah and Hamas, with Israel in the shadows? Wrong again.

CNN leads this morning with Paris Hilton's release from jail. And doesn't she look just stately . . . maybe even matronly . . . in her little girl tea-and-crumpets top with simple black jeans?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ocio Jazz This Week

The Ocio Jazz Collective will appear this Wednesday, June 27th, at Twins Jazz in downtown D.C. Twins is located at 1344 U St., NW, in the heart of the U St. entertainment and dining district. Our show goes from 8-11 p.m. Parking is a challenge, but the Cardozo stop on the Green Line is two blocks away.

There is a $5 cover charge for Twins.

We will be joined by Peter Berking, a Virginia-area pianist. Peter has played with us once before and is a wonderful musician.

Looking ahead, Zeebop, my new project, will be back on the patio of California Tortilla next Tuesday night, July 3rd, from 6.15 to 8.30 p.m. Zeebop is a little louder, a little funkier and little more blue than Ocio. If you think Mark Caruso and Justin Parrott can make it rain with Ocio, do yourself and check these guys out when they turn up the volume a bit.

If you have young musicians in your family, please bring them to one of our shows. We're all happy to talk music with anyone. Justin teaches professionally, so do not hesitate to talk with him if you or anyone you know are interested in lessons. I have learned a lot playing with these guys, both of whom are vastly superior musicians to myself. Anyone interested in the guitar or bass will learn from Mark and Justin as well.

Thanks for your continued support.

Dr. Evil, in plain view

The Washington Post continued today with the second of four articles being published this week on Dick Cheney's unprecedented concentration in and exercise of executive power from the vice-president's office. Yesterday and today's articles have focused on Cheney's role in crafting the response to the "war on terror" and in particular his role in jettisoning legal standards regarding the detainment and interrogation of "enemy combatants." The Post's articles (so far), by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, actually have a critical edge to them, mostly through good reporting and the careful reconstruction of events. Cheney's approach to power is there for all to see. Pretty it is not.

Coming on the heels of Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article last week on Antonio Taguba, the two-star general who conducted the investigation of Abu Ghraib and was fired for his honesty and integrity, the Cheney series is doubly depressing. But these are the times in which we live.

Consider this from Cheney, last month, when he gave the commencement speech at West Point: "On your first day of Army life, each one of you raised your right hand and took an oath. And you will swear again today to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." (emphasis added)

The actual oath cadets are required to take is this: "I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." (emphasis added)

This is a difference with a distinction. If only more people paid attention . . . but, with Paris Hilton's life on the rocks, who has time?

How many of those in the West Point Class of 2007 knew that Dick Cheney had five student deferments to avoid Vietnam?

What a difference a justice makes

Can someone put up a Sandra Day O'Connor symbol in the sky tonight, like the one Commissioner Gordon and Police Chief O'Hara projected at night to let Batman know that he was needed . . . immediately?

Three of the Supreme Court's most important decisions of the October 2006 term came down today. Click here to see the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" opinion (the students lost); here to see the McCain-Feingold opinion (campaign finance reform advocates lost); and here to see the opinion denying citizens' groups the right to challenge tax-funded expenditures by the executive branch (the taxpayers contesting the White House "faith-based" initiative lost).

Commentary forthcoming . . .

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The 5 minute constitutional law course

For those of you who don't tune in to a baseball game until the 9th inning, a basketball game until the last 2 minutes, a hockey game until . . . wait, no one tunes into a hockey game . . . ever . . . or skip to the last scene to find out who killed whom, here is your "Everything You Needed to Know About Constitutional Law in Five Minutes" course, courtesy of Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger and Slate Supreme Court reporter Dahlia Lithwick.

No one likes to see their life's work reduced to a five minute on-line primer. But in the words of the not-late, not-departed Tony Soprano, "Whatta gonna do?"

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Sitting at a picnic table outside the Nissan Pavilion earlier tonight, an outdoor concert venue somewhere near KKKlansville, Virginia, eating sandwiches and watching the pre-concert crowd tailgate and compare their favorite, "Dude, do you remember that time we saw them nine separate times in three days in fourteen different countries 38 years ago," stories, a friend laughed and said, "What grade are we in?"

Judging from the age-range of the soon-to-be-packed amphitheatre on hand to see Rush, the venerable progressive-power rock trio celebrating its 33rd year together, the answer was somewhere around 34th or 35th grade. We were not the youngest people there, nor were we the oldest. But we were certainly among the longest-tenured fans. It didn't occur to me until Rush started out with "Limelight," from their 1980 album, Moving Pictures, that I first saw in them in April 1977, at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Cheap Trick opened, something I only remember because of the baton-sized sticks that its drummer, Bun E. Carlos, used during one of its songs. That same spring and summer I saw Genesis, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Yes. The most expensive ticket to any of those shows was $7.50, plus a dollar Ticketron charge. Getting tickets to concerts back then was a little more labor intensive than now. My friends and I would camp in parking lots for a day or two to get a crack at the front row (successful for Yes, ELP; no worse than 15th row for any of the other shows).

Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart can still bring it. They still play their catalogue with intensity and precision. Just like thirty years ago, teen-age boys still air-drum to the signature Neil fills and licks -- a kid two rows in front me wore drumming gloves as he air-drummed, fairly accurately, to every song (although I couldn't see if he nailed down the double bass-drum bits). Alex Lifeson is still the least interesting lead guitarist in a great band I have ever seen; that doesn't take away from his role in the songwriting process and his considerable skills as a rhythm guitarist. For me, now as always, the star is Geddy Lee, the high-pitched, glass-shattering vocalist and other-worldly bass player. After Paul McCartney, my two favorite rock bass players of all-time are Chris Squire of Yes and Geddy Lee (whose two most important influences are -- get this -- Paul McCartney and Chris Squire. Geddy is a great showman as well as a world-class musician.

Laugh at guys (and the surprising number of women) my age still making the trek to see Rush. To laugh at us, though, you would have to laugh at them. Geddy, Alex and Neil are still having a blast, and offer a great show (the visuals were absolutely great). Rush is by no stretch an oldies act. Their best songs have lasting power, and are more than just nostalgia pieces that conjure up images of where you were when you first heard one of their songs in high school or college. This is probably my last one. But for Rush's sake and their fans, I hope the show goes on forever.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Of course W wears crocs

So George W. Bush wears Crocs. And this comes as a surprise to . . . whom?

Robin Givhan, the Washington Post's fashion reporter, has a piece in this morning's Style section on the uncoolness of Crocs. Although there is nothing in the article that your intrepid Poliscope fashion reporter hadn't already pointed out three weeks ago, there is a picture of W. wearing Crocs with socks, a look that is even worse than the Washington summer perennial -- the European tourist in sandals and socks.

I normally don't read the Style section other than Doonesbury, but the picture of W. in Crocs just was too much to ignore. Towards the end of her piece, Givhan comments that Crocs are worse than grown men who wear backpacks, not the leather "grown up" kind, but the ones with bungee cords and mesh and room for water bottles, etc. I wear a back pack when I ride my bike to work because I can put my computer, a change of clothes, books, a water bottle and various other essential items in it. Givhan refers to people like me as having "Peter Pan" syndrome.

I take exception to that. I play hockey two or three times a week, play in two bands, spend more time watching concert DVDs than I should, and laugh, not scowl, when I watch any movie with Steve Carrell, Will Farrell, Ben Stiller or either of the Wilson Brothers, and still consider the movie, "Swingers," more of a documentary than a comedy. That might qualify me for Peter Pan syndrome.

But carrying a backpack? Nope. In fact, I plan on taking my backpack with me to see Rush this weekend.

Peter Pan syndrome, my ass.

U.S. News goes on academic probation

Earlier this week, the Annapolis Group, an association of approximately 120 liberal arts colleges from across the United States, announced that a majority of the chief academic officers attending its most recent meeting will stop participating in the annual U.S. News and World Report survey ranking colleges and universities. This is a great decision, and one I wish more colleges -- small, large, teaching-intensive and research-oriented -- will follow. And the sooner the better.

Some things life are beyond the reach of the human mind to comprehend -- how Duke Ellington could write for so many instruments so well; The Godfather I & II; why Boston Red Sox fans let manager John McNamara and relief pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley off the hook for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and instead obsess over Bill Buckner's error (Mookie Wilson should have never have come to the plate); Wayne Gretsky's ice vision; John Coltrane's solo on "Giant Steps"; my eight year-old teen-age daughter's need to change outfits 13 times a day; Sandy Koufax's curve ball; Duane Allman's solo on "Layla" . . .

How the U.S. News rankings, which are notoriously unreliable and brimming with statistical bias, emerged as the Zagat's equivalent of American colleges and universities is one of those great "Dude, WTF?" questions of the higher education business. How colleges place in the U.S. News rankings depends in large part on how much data they are willing to submit to the survey. If a college chooses not to release certain data to U.S. News or doesn't collect the data necessary for consideration in a certain category, that school will, by default, place lower in a given ranking. Perhaps the most egregious data point is the "reputational" survey submitted to college presidents and provosts. These officers are asked to rank other colleges on a 1-5 scale, and the results make up 25% of the U.S. News ranking of colleges that participate in the survey. Other problems: not all colleges require the SAT in the admissions process; many private schools do not disclose faculty salaries (although that information is available from the Chronicle of Higher Education's annual survey); grant income can vary wildly depending upon a school's strengths and specialization (schools with hard science programs will receive more grant funding while schools like mine, which have maybe two or three Hasbro microscopes on campus, will generate less "soft" money); and commuter schools will lose points on the amenities end because they are serving a different student body.

The Washington Monthly, an interesting and, for Washington, iconoclastic magazine that punctures conventional wisdom on politics, culture and society, published an article last September exposing the weakness of the U.S. News rankings. The Monthly's methodology has its own weak points; but at least the magazine acknowledges that trying to get a handle on a college's true place in any rankings system is problematic.

The bigger problem with all these rankings and "insider's guides" is that they simply do not measure what they purport to measure. Even for someone as statistically-challenged as myself (confession: my stats professor in graduate school informally waived my data analysis requirement after he saw me drawing in crayon and playing with Hot Wheels cars during our weekly seminars. He knew, like my math teachers in high school, that I was beyond hope and the best thing to do was to release me into society on my own recognizance), I know that these surveys are invalid on their face. The same people who read and reject peer-submitted articles to professional journals on a regular basis because of methodological flaws eagerly embrace the U.S. News surveys because it gives them a free marketing tool. Any graduate student who submitted the U.S. News survey in a first-year seminar on research design would have it stamped, "Return to Sender." A survey that fails such a fundamental test should have no place in determining where so many students end up attending college.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Roy Torcaso, licensed notary public

Roy Torcaso, who died last week at 96, is not a name that often comes up in any discussion of the evolution of post-World War II American church-state law. I'm willing to bet that most constitutional law teachers, whether law school professors or political scientists like myself, teach Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) in their courses (I don't). But this former Maryland notary public is among the most important church-state litigants ever to have taken his case to the Supreme Court and won.

In 1959, Torcaso, a bookkeeper for a Bethesda, Maryland, construction company, applied for a license to become a notary public. Torcaso refused to take a state oath that required notaries to profess a belief in God. Maryland refused to grant him his license. Torcaso then enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress to take his case. He was represented by Leo Pfeffer, the church-state scholar and lawyer who, since the late 1940s, had been mapping out cases to challenge the pervasive presence of religion in American public life. The Court unanimously ruled in favor of Torcaso. Justice Hugo Black wrote that neither the state nor the federal government "can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion' . . . or constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs."

Few people remember Roy Torcaso's case, as it was decided at a time when divisive battles over school prayer, voting rights, school desegregation, free speech, libel and the rights of criminal defendants loomed just over the constitutional horizon. Here we are now, 45 years later, watching presidential candidates slug it out a year and a half before the election over who uses more of their anytime cell phone minutes to talk to God. Torcaso v. Watkins should remind us that a belief or non-belief in God or anything else has no bearing in holding a public office.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

General Taguba speaks about Abu Ghraib

Seymour Hersh interviews General Antonio Taguba, the two-star Army General assigned to investigate the horrific human rights violations that took place at Abu Ghraib, in this week's New Yorker.

This interview is stunning and appalling for all the reasons you might imagine. On the other hand, General Taguba's integrity in making public what happened at Abu Ghraib and his honesty in detailing the lying and deceit of civilian and military officials above him represent a profile in courage.

Read it here. Whatever you thought you knew about Abu Ghraib is nothing compared to what you will learn reading this article.

You will also learn the difference between true investigative reporting, Sy Hersh style, as opposed to the trade gossip that passes for reporting in Bob Woodward's books.

Zeebop returns to downtown Bethesda

My side project, Zeebop, will be sweatin' the blues out this Friday night from around 6.15 until we get booed off the patio at California Tortilla in downtown Bethesda. I'll be joined by the brilliant Ocio Jazz guitarist, Mark Caruso, up-and-comer Mark Kowal, who can make his guitar cry and sing, sometimes at the same time, and Ocio Jazz bassist Justin Parrott, who puts a bottom down that could make a thunderstorm blush.

California Tortilla is located at 4862 Cordell Ave., between Victor's Pizza and Night Dreams and across from Grapeseed. Thanks to all my friends there for letting us play. We had a great time there a few weeks ago and look forward to doing it again.

I have added a "Drum Corner" to my personal website. Visit it here.

I also have available for purchase various non-essential items featuring "The Professor" logo developed by a friend I am not allowed to name. All proceeds go to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation or the Special Hockey Program (which gets autistic and other developmentally-challenged kids on the ice) sponsored in part by Montgomery Youth Hockey Association. For more information, click here.

The cool kids table is for cool kids only

The new Hillary-tanic campaign commercial spoofing the final scene of "The Sopranos" finale has been fairly well-received, from what I can tell.

Personally, I think this ad challenges Hillary's "Yankees Hat" picture for sheer dorkiness. Once a student government geek, always a student government geek.

Celine Dion? "You and I," her campaign song? Is she trying to shore up the Manitoba vote? I didn't think it could get worse than "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" by Fleetwood Mac from Bill's 1992 campaign. I always thought "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf was a more appropriate choice for Bill.

Hillary? "I Am Woman," by Helen Reddy. There is always, "Sophisticated Lady," by Duke Ellington. But I doubt that one is on her iPod.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The $450,000 high school English teacher

Can you imagine a private school coming up with $250,000 bonus to lure a really promising young English teacher to teach 9th grade English lit, 11th grade creative writing, or 2nd grade reading, and then offer a starting salary approaching $200,000 per year to seal the deal?

Of course not.

But what about a public school?

Let me know when you get finishing laughing your ass off . . .

But once again, we are treated to an explanation from a lawyer insisting that the bonuses and salaries that private law firms are willing to pay former Supreme Court law clerks makes perfect sense because it actually promotes a more healthy and equitable legal system.

In the New York Times earlier this week, David Lat, who edits an on-line legal "tabloid" called Above The Law, wrote an Op-Ed piece defending the uber-compensation of these legal "bonus babies," claiming that what might seem like off-the-charts compensation to mere mortals like myself is an optical illusion. A few years at Big, Bigger and Biggest representing wealthy corporate clients allows former clerks to pay off their law school debts, develop some degree of financial stability and then move to more meaningful work in government, academia or public interest law. Or that is what Lat believes, anyway.

I am not at all persuaded that bestowing $450,000 upon a first-year associate because he clerked for a Supreme Court justice somehow benefits the legal profession in particular and society as a whole. This is one crazy-ass theory of trickle-down economics that puts the Laffer curve to shame.

Meanwhile, two exceptional former students of mine have recently jettisoned law school to participate in Teach for America, a program that places talented young college graduates to teach in under-served inner-city and rural public schools around the country. The program requires a two year commitment, and new teachers can expect to earn roughly somewhere between $28-44,000 per year in salary, depending upon their qualifications and whether they live in cities or rural communities. But the real hidden benefit is student loan deferment and eligibility to receive modest grants after completing the program to help repay their student loan debts . . . a whopping $9, 450 over two years!

Okay, okay . . . the legal profession will not benefit from their decision to teach school. But will society benefit from their decision far more than if my former students had gone to work racking up billable hours for fat and happy clients who, for the most part, are contributing little to our nation's social fabric?


New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Paul McCartney

The most important musicians are those who understand the rules of music and then by-pass them to establish their own logic, style that results in an instrumental and compositional voice all their own. In the case of Paul McCartney, who turned 65 today, you have to add the human voice to his staggering accomplishments over the last 45 years. I sit here trying to figure out words to describe the sum of his talent, his breathtaking originality, his . . . everything, and I just don't feel like I can come up with anything worthy of his legacy. Genius is word too often used to describe musicians, writers, athletes, teachers, inventors, etc. who are more often just very good. Not here. Paul McCartney is a genius.

But here is what I do know: Paul McCartney is the greatest songwriter in the history of popular music. No one comes close. Had McCartney had opened a coffee shop at 25 and never picked up an instrument or written another song, he still would have written "I Saw Her Standing There," "And I Love Her," "All My Loving," "Drive My Car," "Yesterday," "Paperback Writer," "Here, There, Everywhere," "Eleanor Rigby," "Good Day, Sunshine," and "Penny Lane." This is a random sample, and doesn't include "Sgt. Peppers," which was McCartney's idea -- from the fake band (hello, Roger Waters?) to the 42 second piano-chord heard around the world to close "A Day in the Life." There are at least a dozen more Beatles songs that McCartney wrote after his 25th birthday that are classics of composition, voice and instrumentation that I have not even listed here. In his post-Beatles life, for which McCartney has been inexplicably maligned by rock critics for not achieving a second time what no one but him ever accomplished on the first go-round, we have: "Maybe I'm Amazed," "Band on the Run," "My Brave Face," "This One," and, since 1997, a steady stream of albums that have been solid, memorable and stood on their own. His brand new release, "Memory Almost Full," has some genuinely great moments, and has sold better in the first week than any other of his solo recordings.

McCartney is also the greatest rock bass player ever. By playing the melody on "All My Loving," rather than just the root notes underneath the rhythm, McCartney permanently altered the bass guitar in popular music. McCartney and Ringo Starr were a great rhythm section because they were both doing things that no one on their respective instruments had done before. But McCartney operated on a whole different level. The greatest rock bass players of the last 30 years or so, John Entwistle, Chris Squire and Geddy Lee, all make their basses sing and have added to the language of the instrument that places them above even some of the other greats on the instrument. McCartney started it all, though. Don't forget that the bass was his second instrument. He started on guitar, and ended his Beatles career as perhaps the most accomplished guitar player in the band (some of the greatest guitar solos on Beatles' records belong to him: "Good Morning, Good Morning," "Sgt. Pepper," "Back in the U.S.S.R," "Drive My Car," for starters; and there is the solo on "Maybe I'm Amazed," another classic), and his acoustic playing is among the very best ever -- "Blackbird" alone is an accomplishment that many guitar players I know would give one of their hands to have written and played. And he is a great pianist. And a great drummer (that's him on "Back in the U.S.S.R").

And the voice . . . the voice. That literally sings for itself.

McCartney had defied his critics to continue to make music on his terms. Some of it has been great; some of it has been awful. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux have won almost 700 games between them and neither has ever pitched a no-hitter. Does anyone really care? Almost 45 combined seasons later, they each give their team a chance to win when they go to the mound, long after the next great pitchers have disappeared into the Elias Bureau of Statistics, historical footnotes and nothing more. How many musicians who began their careers in popular music 45 years ago are still making records, much less ones that still require musicians and fans to take notice?

Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie were musical revolutionaries, and made their most important contributions in the earliest parts of their careers. They played the music they wrote for their entire careers, and modern jazz musicians still play their compositions, hoping against hope that they'll come up with something half as brilliant or play their instruments half as well. Rather than criticize Ellington, Monk and Gillespie (and later, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many more) for playing their most brilliant work, jazz fans embrace their legacies. I am not a betting man, but I might bet my original copy of "Let It Be," now 37 years old, that not a single critic or musician (other than John Lennon) who has ever criticized McCartney has ever written a song half as good as "The Long and Winding Road," or put together a rock symphony like side 2 of "Abbey Road" as a swan song to the world's greatest band.

Tonight, I'll sing my eight year-old teen-age daughter "Golden Slumbers" before she goes to bed. I have probably sung that song 350 of the 365 days in a year for almost the last 13 years to either one of my kids. They never get tired of it; neither do I; and neither will you when you sing "Golden Slumbers" to your kids, which, if you haven't started doing it already, you will.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Allman Brothers Band

The term "Southern Rock" was invented sometime in the early 1970s to describe the aural mosaic of jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country and classical form that defined the musical core of the Allman Brothers Band, which, featuring a barely 20 year-old guitarist named Duane Allman and his brother, a gifted songwriter and gravel-voiced keyboard player, Gregg, offered a new twist on rock music that defied categorization. In the late 1960s, the Grateful Dead had emerged on the West Coast as the template for the "jam band" genre that certainly inspired the Allmans and many other bands driven by instrumental improvisation rather than adherence to the traditional pop/rock song form. Musically, though, there was and remains no competition between the Allmans and any of the other bands that carved their niche in what might be more accurately called rock-roots improvisational music.

How do you describe a band that paid homage to John Coltrane and Miles Davis by penning the greatest rock instrumental of all-time, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," while, at the same time, featured the greatest and most widely-respected guitarist other than Jimi Hendrix? When I was a kid, I took great pride in telling my friends that "Liz" was named for my dentist's daughter, who happened to take me to my first Allman Brothers show when I was 10 years old, a free concert in Piedmont Park in downtown Atlanta. Her name was Elizabeth Reed, and I fell for the story that she and her friends told me about the song as a tribute to her. I didn't find out the song's real origins until I was well into graduate school, when I learned that Dickey Betts, an original Allmans member (and iconic guitarist in his own right) took the name from a headstone he happened to come across during a late-night visit to a graveyard with a girlfriend.

Growing up in Atlanta, I heard the Allman Brothers lumped in with such inferior bands as the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special (Shocking, a Southern band named after a gun) and Molly Hatchet under the term Southern rock.

And Duke Ellington and Lawrence Welk both led big bands. The similarity ends there.

The early Allmans sound was unlike anything in rock music. The twin lead guitars of Duane Allman and Betts, the melodic yet driving bass of Berry Oakley, the blues-drenched organ of Gregg Allman, whose gravely, whiskey-and-cigarettes soaked voice made him the white male counterpart to Janice Joplin. There was nothing contrived or artificial about Allman's voice, nor the reading he gave the lyrics he or his bandmates supplied. This was not "blue-eyed" soul -- this was the real deal. When Allman sang, "Sometimes I feel like I'm dying" at the close of "Whipping Post," you got the sense that he meant it.

The Allmans experienced enough tragedy during their early, meteoric rise to last most bands a lifetime. Duane Allman died in motorcycle accident in 1971, just after the band achieved national prominence with "Live at Fillmore East," to this day one the great live albums in rock music history (and a permanent Top Ten desert island fave of mine), barely 24 years old. Shortly thereafter, Berry Oakley, their marvelous bass player died in another motorcycle crash just over a year later (and three blocks from where Duane had crashed). The deaths of Duane and Oakley established the revolving door that would bring musicians in and out of the Allman Brothers Band fold, a practice that continues to this day. The early post-Duane incarnation featuring Chuck Leavell on piano to augment Betts as the second lead instrument had moments of pure inspiration (producing the classic instrumental, "Jessica"). By and large, though, the band was pulled apart by the drug culture of the 70s and genuinely different musical directions.

The Allmans reformed at the end of the 1970s and produced a good album, "Enlightened Rogues," but the music, while certainly passable, did not come close to its early '70s heyday. Disappearing again for most of the 1980s, the Allman Brothers came together by decade's end with its strongest line-up since the Fillmore East-era. Warren Haynes was at minimum Dickey Betts equal (he would quickly surpass Betts as the more interesting guitarist) and Allen Woody's playing recalled Oakleys. Propelled again by the dual drumming that permitted Jaimoe to add his jazz-tinged fills to soften the freight train driven by the underrated Butch Trucks, supported by world-class Latin percussionist Marc Quinones, the Allmans were back and every bit as interesting as they were twenty years before.

More changes have visited the Allman Brothers. Allen Woody died in 2000, and Dickey Betts would be forced out shortly thereafter for personal and business reasons. All that happened was that Derek Trucks, a soft-spoken, painfully shy teenager and nephew of drummer Butch, would get a stage that would soon have people talking about him as the most original and talented guitarist in popular music since Duane Allman. And Warren Haynes came back, knowing he would never have to play with Dickey Betts again. Add Oteil Burbridge, who was laboring in obscurity throughout the 90s in a band called Aquarium Rescue Unit, with his jazz, funk and blues roots, and you have a band that, like the first Duane Allman-led incarnation, can blow just about anyone off the stage.

I think of the Allman Brothers as an American big band, not a rock band, not a Southern rock outfit, not a jazz band . . . not really anything other than what it has always been -- truly original, in musical place very few bands ever reach and beyond categorization. A recent musical acquaintance asked me how I could have seven or eight Allman Brothers albums and a couple of concert DVDs and the complete John Coltrane catalogue in the same record collection. The answer is pretty obvious, and maybe one day he'll figure it out.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Jewish mother, explained

God forbid you should make an effort to find out about me.

Purchase "The Professor" for charity

Just in time for graduation, Father's Day, end-of-the-world parties, the MLB all-star break . . . your very own T-shirt, mouse pad or coffee cup featuring my "The Professor" drumming logo. You can shop here.

The modest proceeds from any sales will go to the Special Hockey Program sponsored by the Montgomery County Youth Hockey Association that organizes ice-time, practices and games for autistic and other developmentally-challenged young boys and girls, or the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, the nation's largest organization devoted to funding programs for breast cancer survivors, the families of victims and underwriting treatment for women unable to afford the help they need.

Gay marriage takes another step forward

The Massachusetts legislature yesterday overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have defined legal marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Had the amendment passed, it would have been placed on the November 2008 ballot for approval by Massachusetts voters.

One more time: the legal movement to secure the rights of gays and lesbians to equal treatment under the law is a process that is only going to move forward, not backwards. How much better off would our country be if we paid attention to the issues that matter, such as the disastrous war in Iraq, and simply allowed people here to live and let live?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Co-dependent no more, eh?

A judge in Ontario has ordered a Canadian man who abused his ex-girlfriend and then tried to kill himself released from 150 days of custody, contingent on his compliance with a court order that he not have a girlfriend for three years.

Doctors concluded that the man, Steven Cranley, suffered from dependency personality disorder that made it hard for him to deal with rejection.

God help the authorities if Mr. Cranley's dry cleaners ever lose his pants.

The $54 million dollar pair of pants

Sometime in 2002, a D.C. nut case named Roy Pearson decided not to accept the $150 check that a local dry cleaners cut him after losing a pair of his pants. He was upset at what he claimed was the cleaner's second screw-up, and decided to sue the Korean couple who owned and ran the shop for . . . $65 million! And Pearson is an administrative law judge for the District of Columbia!

After several years of legal maneuvering, Pearson's trial began this week. He has dropped his claim from $65 to $54 million in damages. He also wants somewhere between $300-500 dollars per hour in attorney's fees. Estimating that he has spent 1,400 hours on his case, that comes out to somewhere between $425,000-700,000. You have to read more about this case to believe it.

The judge is expected to rule next week.

* * * * * * * * * *

Remember Robert Bork, the conservative D.C. Court of Appeals judge whose 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court ended in the most public failure of any nominee in American history? Bork's post-nominee career has consisted of time spent in conservative think-tanks writing screeds about everything from how liberals have destroyed the Constitution, the courts, popular culture to how no one knows anything about the Constitution and judging but him. Among the many causes near and dear to his now 79 year-old heart is "tort reform," which is simply a clever political phrase to permit the law to cap the amount of damages that civil plaintiffs may recover from tortuous claims. Just five years ago, Bork co-published an article on the need for Congress to place a ceiling on punitive damages claims.

Last week, though, Bork filed a slip-and-fall lawsuit against the Yale Club in New York. In June 2006, Bork gave a speech at the club, but fell as walked to the dais. Bork has alleged that the club "wantonly, willfully, and recklessly" failed to provide him proper access to his lectern. He is seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount punitive award.

All right, then. Let's wish Judge Bork a speedy recovery from his fall and nothing more. By the way, Bork still delivered his address.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis, the entrepreneur who has given the world more shots of semi-drunk 19 year-old college girls showing their breasts than anyone could possibly need or want, sits in a Nevada jail these days awaiting trial on federal tax evasion charges. He was offered bail, but refused, apparently worried that his status as a semi-free man would result in Florida authorities transferring him there to answer for charges ranging from illegal drug possession while in custody in the Sunshine State to using minors in sexual performances.

Things just got worse for Francis. Two Florida women have just filed suit against Francis for distributing DVDs featuring them in sexual performances and sexual exhibitionism on a "Girls Gone Wild" tour bus. The women claimed that they did not authorize "Girls Gone Wild" to feature them, and, even if they did, they were drunk when they granted consent, a crime made worse by the fact that they were under 21 when they boarded that bus to infamy.

Wow! And I thought crazy sports parents suing their children's coaches for not playing their child at left-wing or college students suing their professors for not giving them a better grade despite having never turned in any work was out there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

David Chase speaks

David Chase gives an exclusive interview on the end of The Sopranos, including the controversial ending, to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

ADDED: Another theory suggests that Tony did die in the episode's last scene, this one coming from HBO management.

Exponential math and toilet paper

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away -- the years roughly from my childhood through my graduate school years -- going to the grocery or drug store for such staples as aspirin, sinus decongestant, shampoo, salad dressing, crackers and cough medicine was an uncomplicated task. For aspirin, you could choose between Bayer, Excedrin or Bufferin; for sinus relief, Dristan or Sinutab; for salad dressing, Kraft or Wishbone; for crackers, Saltines or Ritz.

Some choices were even easier. For tissues, you bought Kleenex, even if you bought another brand. No one has ever said, "We're out of tissues. Could you please pick some up on your next trip to the store?" You run out of Kleenex, not tissues. Tissue paper is something you stuff in a gift bag, not something you use to blow your nose.

Same with Q-tips. Who has ever uttered, "Oh, shit, we're out of cotton-tipped ear swabs! Run up to Giant right now and pick-up a new pack" to their girlfriend, husband or themselves? You run out of Q-tips even if you buy another brand (which you shouldn't; Q-tips are the gold standard of cotton-tipped ear swabs, even though the directions tell you not to use them to clean your ears. Weird, but true).

The world now has many better choices. Tylenol and Advil are better than aspirin. Ken's is better than Wishbone or Kraft. And shampoo? There are stores, big ones, devoted entirely to selling shampoo.

But perhaps the easiest purchase of them all was toilet paper. It was the easiest because it was the most essential. Before anything else -- Kleenex, Q-tips, aspirin, crackers, shampoo, soap . . . even beer . . . toilet paper comes first. Running out of Q-tips . . . that you can live with. But neglecting to check for toilet paper before sitting down to take care of your business can have truly awful repercussions. Alone, it's bad enough if you have to do the two-legged hop or ankle shuffle around the house to the other bathroom, hoping like hell no one has decided to stop by without knocking. And what happens if that bathroom is also barren? Paper towels?

And let's not get into the embarrassment factor if you're in a public facility or someone else's house.


Your choices were Charmin, Northern and Scott's. Scott's always struck as a bit suspicious for two reasons. First, it bore the same brand name as the fertilizer, weed-killer and other chemical products that went down in our lawn and everybody else's growing up. Second, you could only buy it in single rolls.

A single roll of toilet paper. Who buys a single roll of toilet paper? Okay, I did once, in graduate school, when I was so destitute one week that I was paying for everything in loose change. I bought a can of tuna, a banana and one roll of Scott's toilet paper.

I have since continued to eat tuna (I can now afford white tuna instead of "chunk light") and bananas. I have never purchased or knowingly used Scott's again. I will not go into detail, other than to suggest that toilet paper should not have an alternative use as tar remover.

That left Charmin and Northern. And the choice was easy. I bought whichever one was on sale. Soon, though, I switched to Charmin full-time, for the simple reason that we joined Costco and that was the brand they carried. Better yet, you could buy 48 rolls at a time. Done and done.

Now, though, our membership at Costco has lapsed and, not having any real need for 128 ounce bottles of olive oil or any interest in buying a boat or hammock while making my once-monthly traditional run for paper products and Oreos, we have not renewed. So now I am back at Giant for my toilet paper, a task that would seem simpler, more convenient and, factoring in opportunity costs and driving distance, price-neutral.

If only that were the case.

I never liked the Charmin people's decision to make single and double-ply toilet paper. Is one for dainty young girls and the other for rough-and-tough lumberjacks? Old people on a budget? Burly men in cut-off flannel shirts who saunter up to the Shoney's breakfast bar, give the sausages, bacon, eggs, grits, gravy and biscuits a stare and a smirk, and say, matter-of-factly, "Damn right it's all you can eat!" and pile up their heart attacks on a plate?

Single-ply, double-ply . . . it's all just too . . . too . . . damn much! Even worse, mathematically-challenged consumers like me have to face a new dilemma. Do we buy 12 big rolls, which are really 24 regular rolls? Up the ante a bit and buy 18 bigger rolls, which are 48 regular rolls? Keep it simple and buy 24 regular rolls? Save space in the cart and at home by buying 6 mega rolls? Why can't there be just 6, 12, 24, 36 or 48 or whatever number they want people to buy?

I put this question to a younger, computer-science geek friend of mine the other day. His answer?

"I buy my toilet paper at Whole Foods," he sniffed. "They sell organic, bleach-free toilet paper. And I'm willing to spend the extra money to save the environment."

"Impressive," I responded. "Do you know if trees are grown in cage-free forests and allowed to roam before they are chopped down and turned into toilet paper?"

No answer.

For people like me who buy their toilet paper at Giant, there was only one thing to do: ask a friendly Giant employee which combination -- 12 megas, 24 bigs, 18 biggers, 36 regs; one-ply, two-ply -- offered the best quality and value. Giant guarantees me quality and value or my money back, and it was time to put that promise to the test.

"Excuse me," I said to a woman named Violet, who was straightening the paper towels that were displayed next to the toilet paper. "Which of these packages offers me the best quality and value?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand your question." And she seemed genuinely concerned.

"I don't know which of these toilet paper packages to buy. I don't know the difference between the one and two-ply rolls, why I should buy 12 megas that make 48 regular rolls, or whether it makes the most sense for me to 24 big rolls that equal 36 regular rolls. I've looked at the cost per 100 count, and I just can't figure out which choice offers me the best quality and value."

Violet put on her reading glasses, took a look at the various combinations, stepped back, put her hands on her hips, leaned in again, and then turned to me.

"It is very confusing," she said. "I don't know why they do this. I can't figure it out. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful."

"You've been very helpful. At least I know I'm not alone."

Finally, I just gave up and threw a 24 pack of big rolls in my cart and headed off to do the rest of my shopping. I needed onions, and I knew the difference between yellow, red, white and Vidalia. I needed broccoli, and all I had to decide was whether I wanted florets or stalks. Milk? 2%, never more, never less. Light, not heavy, cream for my coffee. Easy, easy, easy.

Still, I couldn't help but look at those 24 big rolls of toilet paper standing on their side in my cart and wondered if I was being scammed. For a moment, and not for the first time, maybe the time has come to just bite the bullet and buy some of that corn-fed, organic, all-natural, Montessori-educated, not-tested-on-animals, caught-in-the-wild toilet paper that my Whole Foods friends insist is the way to go.

The moment soon passed. Nope. This is between me and Charmin. And one day I'll get those bastards.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Gitmo . . . the new Four Seasons

Civil libertarians: quit your bitching! Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee believes that "most" American prisoners "would love to be in a facility more like Guantanamo and less like the state prisons that people are in in the United States."

Here that, Colin Powell? Why would you dare to suggest shutting down such a luxurious facility like Gitmo? Are you with the terrorists now?

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos

By now, there is nothing left to say about The Sopranos that hasn't already been said -- by the actors, by professional critics, by essayists, journalists and literary figures moonlighting as Sopranos addicts, by anyone who ever watched the show. Rather than attempt to write an essay capturing my own addiction and boundless admiration for The Sopranos, I will highlight some of my favorite things about the show, which I believe, hands down, made for the best television ever.

* * I thought the finale was the best it could have been. Anything more and David Chase runs the risk of convention and hyperbole. Anything less and the complaints move in the opposite direction. Plenty happened last night -- Phil Leotardo gets killed in the most memorable whacking since Ralph Ciffareto had his head chopped off; Tony makes an inner-peace with Junior; Janice completes her metamorphosis into Livia, her mother; Paulie survives, neither too high or too low on the food chain; we get one last glimpse of Silvio; and Chase manages pulls off the most dramatic last five minutes of television I can remember, even by Sopranos standards.

* * Tony didn't get killed. He looked up and saw Meadow. There is no right or wrong on The Sopranos. You figure out a way to survive or you don't. There is no independent good beyond the characters. It's pragmatic philosophy, literally "Made in America," the title of the last episode.

* * After eight years, the Sopranos remain pretty much the people they were when we met them. Tony is still Tony, minus the panic attacks; Carmela is still the enabler, concerned more with losing her affluence and material advantages than haunted (as she momentarily was) by the blood money that finances her family's good fortune. A. J. comes full circle and remains, into his early twenties, a petulant, spoiled and self-indulgent little boy. And Meadow, for all her promise, opts for the big-bucks over advocacy for the downtrodden. Her invocation of prejudice against Italian-Americans to justify her decision to enter white-collar criminal defense work was the pure distillation of her father's own rationale to justify his criminal life. Watch "College" from the first season and look for the similarities.

* * Agent Harris was the metaphor for those of us on the outside looking in. He got sucked into Tony Soprano's world to the point where he felt that, as bad as he was, he was a prince compared to Phil Leotardo, Johnny Sacramoni and the others who never showed what passed for Tony's soft side. And Dr. Melfi wasn't much better. Talk about someone who needs a shrink! And not someone so willing to violate doctor-patient confidentiality, like Eliot Kupferburg.

* * James Gandolfini deserves every accolade he has ever and will receive for his portrayal of Tony. But Edie Falco as Carmella was just as good. They were equals on screen, pushing each other with virtuoso performances that grew better with every season. Their power and range in those roles were truly astonishing.

* * Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler developed their characters and blossomed as actors over the series' run. Neither of their characters was terribly sympathetic; but they could make you empathize with them at times, and that is the mark of first-rate acting.

* * My favorite supporting character over the eight year run? Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero. Runners-up: Silvio Dante, Hesh Rabkin, Johnny Sacramoni, Councilman Zellman, Adriana LaCerva, Paulie Walnuts, Uncle Junior and Rosie Aprile.

* * Most annoying character: A tie between Janice Soprano and Ralph Cifferato (any coincidence they ended up together?) Runners up: A. J. Soprano (and any of his friends), Phil Leotardo, Father Phil, Dr. Melfi's son and Angie Bonpensiero.

* * Tony's hottest goomar? Gloria Trillo. But that didn't turn out so well.

* * The best scenes were often the simplest . . . shooting the shit in front of Satriale's; talking about everything and nothing while waiting in cars; the malaprops (Little Carmine had no peer in that regard); misunderstandings in conventional life. The strengths of The Sopranos were the writing and the acting. Some story lines were great; some not-so-great (but still good). But when you give marvelous actors great lines and the direction to support their work . . . wow! How many boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife, jilted lover-fights have you seen? A million? How many were as good as the Tony-Gloria Trillo blow-out? The Carmela-Tony fight that ends with him punching the wall? Writing and acting . . . everything else takes care of itself.

* * I really wanted to see the Russian come back. Who didn't? The "Pine Barrens" ranks at the very top of Sopranos episodes.

* * I missed Adriana. But she had to go -- no choice. Same with Furio -- a great character.

* * Richie Aprile was probably the nastiest of Tony's nemeses, more so than even Phil. David Proval was so absorbing as Richie that what was originally a two-episode gig stretched out over almost an entire season. "One door closes, another opens . . ." Indeed.

* * Joe Young's appearance as Bobby Baccalari's father and his decision to come out of "retirement" to do a hit was one of the best guest starring roles of the series. Sidney Pollack's turn this year as an imprisoned doctor counseling Johnny Sack was also a treat.

* * Bobby deserved his promotion, just like he said. Remember, "Nostradamus predicted all this shit."

* * Some of my favorite small moments included Junior's ongoing battle with the garbage disposal, Paulie's confrontation with worldly spirits, the lunches at Satriales, Silvio's baiting of the refs at his daughter's soccer games, Tony's "outrage" over foreign terrorism, Georgie the bartender's battle with the Bing's new phone system and Christopher's discovery that the Russians really did point nuclear missiles at the United States from Cuba.

* * Edie Falco must have some relief knowing she never has to dress like Carmela again. Carmela's wardrobe was pure hell -- the gold string belts alone made me want to scream, "Get a personal shopper!"

* * Carmela's parents were great. Poor Hugh . . . he had to ask about the Dole?

* * The best lines were all Junior's, especially during the first few seasons. My personal favorite: "I've got federal marshals so far up my ass I can taste the Brylcream." A close second: "You call that a likeness!" (A reference to the court artist's rendering of Junior, which earned him one of Junior's most threatening menaces ever). Remember Tony's answer to Dr. Melfi when she asked him if he had ever had a prostate exam? "Are you kidding? I don't let anyone wag a finger in my face!"

* * How great was Tony's comeback to Meadow after she wailed, "The state has the power to crush the individual!" Tony: "New Jersey?"

* * The music! David Chase picked all of it. Did he ever make a bad choice? The mixing of "Every Breath You Take" and "Peter Gunn" was brilliant. And the theme, combined with the opening credits? The best ever.

* * David Chase gave people more "closure" at the end than fans upset with the ending realize. Two characters appear from Season 1 that hadn't been on the show in ages -- Hunter, Meadow's "bad" high school friend made good, was in the pilot; Mink, Tony's attorney who also represented Junior in his Season 3 trial, was also an early first-season character. And the last scene in the finale mirrored the last scene from Season 1. The Sopranos, in the last episode of the first season, are driving home when a fallen tree forces them to detour. They end up in Artie's new restaurant, where Artie has just finished closing down because he's lost power. Tony talks Artie into preparing them dinner. After the wine is poured, Tony lifts his glass and toasts his family, telling them to "remember the times like these, the ones that are good." And that is exactly the same thing A. J. said to Tony as they wolfed down onion rings, even acknowledging to his father that he "once said that to us."

I could go on forever. Not so coincidentally, the last nine episodes will be available on DVD in time for Father's Day. Just a bit better than a power tool (I don't own any and like it that way), an electric grill cleaner or golf ball cleaner, don't you think?

Endless detention hits a roadblock

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., today ruled that the Bush administration does not have the authority to detain an individual with a "substantial relationship" to the United States in a military prison by designating him an "enemy combatant" without first charging him with a crime and allowing him access to the civilian courts.

Read the details here. You can see the opinion here.

The court divided 2-1. Judges Diana Motz, who wrote the opinion, and Roger Gregory were both appointed by President Clinton in 1994 and 2000, respectively. Judge Henry Hudson, who dissented, was appointed by President Bush in 2002.