Thursday, May 28, 2009

What's in a Name? Everything.

Last week I was driving home from a luncheon in Palos Verdes. I took the Harbor Freeway north. Please notice I did not say the "110." Everything was fine until I took the transition road to the Century Freeway west. Please notice I did not say the "105."
I have little to say about people who use numbers in place of names other than this: like vampires, they have no souls and suck the life blood out of our language. And also please note I did not say, "I transitioned" to the Century Freeway west. A perfectly healthy noun should not be transformed into a mutant verb.
To make matters worse, the sign next to the transition road labeled the road with the unimaginative "interchange." Despite this shortcoming, there was something refreshing about the sign. It has a name, not a number. It is not "Interchange 39." No, this "interchange" bears a name, the name of a distinguished judge who sits on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The sign reads: "The Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange." I know and respect Judge Pregerson, but, I have to admit, I am a bit envious. The only thing named after me is my trash can. And I erased my name from the container because a judicial protection officer said it was not wise in this day and age to have my name so publicly displayed. I thought that advice reasonable until some wise guy suggested it should also apply to my opinions.
I can understand how courthouses can be named after prominent judges, lawyers, and politicians who have made significant contributions to the cause of justice. Several names in the Los Angeles area come to mind: Stanley Mosk, David V. Kenyon, Alfred J. McCourtney, and my colleague, Steve Perren. There is also Clara Shortridge Foltz, Ed Roybal, and Ed Edelman. And let's not forget the Mildred L. Lillie Law Library. But a freeway "interchange"?
Through my research I learned that Judge Pregerson earned the distinction of having an "interchange" named after him because he presided over the lawsuit challenging the construction of the Century Freeway. When the case began, Judge Pregerson was a federal district court judge. During the trial, he was appointed to the Ninth Circuit. Nevertheless, he continued to try the case and see it to completion. Good for him. No new judge should have to jump in the middle of that mess and get up to speed. And it would be unthinkable to everyone, except the side that ultimately lost, to declare a mistrial and start all over again. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that without Judge Pregerson's decision there likely would have been no Century Freeway for some time to come.
I wondered why they didn't name the whole damned freeway after him instead of a measly "interchange." Further research supplied the answer. The freeway was already named after someone. It is officially known as the Glenn Anderson Freeway. Glenn Anderson was the congressman representing the South Bay who fought to have the Century Freeway built.
Official names given to freeways and "interchanges" do not mean all that much. If I had asked instructions on how to get from Palos Verdes to downtown Los Angeles, do you think a gas station attendant would say: "Take the Glenn Anderson Freeway to the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange"? Not a chance, particularly when today we don't have gas station attendants. Would the guy sitting behind the bulletproof glass in his sealed enclosure know the answer to my question? Of course not.
Nevertheless, I think it would be nice to have even a portion of a road named after me. I don't expect anything so magisterial as a freeway, let alone a transition road, but how about a stop sign, or maybe a curb? The Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert loading zone would do. But, the way we name things these days, it would probably have a number in some bureaucratic register: "Loading Zone #349, aka, the Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert Loading Zone." I would prefer it be a passenger loading zone where people, not cartons of suppositories, are "unloaded" (another word I hate). I would like my passenger loading zone to be in front of a prestigious building. I can just see the dispatcher who hails the next taxicab at LAX (I mean Los Angeles International Airport) for the Ambassador from Ghana. "Please take His Excellency to the Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert Loading Zone at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel."
To get such recognition, I have to have decided a significant case. Wait a minute! Speaking of Beverly Hills, it just occurred to me that I have as much a claim as Judge Pregerson to be named after a byway. He has his case. I have mine. In Friedman vs. City of Beverly Hills, 47 Cal.App.4th 436 (1996), I wrote the opinion that upheld the right of the City of Beverly Hills to give preferential parking to residents. Think the City Council would go for the "Justice Arthur Gilbert Preferential Parking Zone"?
But it is hard to buck the tide in favor of numbers over names. The battle was lost years ago. Before he went into politics, our feisty Senator S.I. Hayakawa lost the fight against the phone company who scuttled enchantingly named telephone prefixes in favor of numbers. The San Francisco-based Anti‑Digit Dialing League simply could not connect. And we lost such charming names as Hillside, Exbrook, Crestview, Poplar, and Murray Hill to area code numbers.
But in many cases it is appropriate to hide names to protect privacy. Jurors are designated by numbers. In dependency and juvenile cases, California Rules of Court, rule 8.400(b)(2) provides that appellate opinions refer to the parties' last names by their initials. The reporter of decisions argues that this approach does not provide sufficient protection and that we also should use initials for the first names. When the first name is unusual, the court rule sanctions that approach. But if we use this method in all cases, the opinion will read like a badly written law school hypothetical. Aren't they all?
This practice could even spread to the judiciary. Lawyers might go for it. If judges are known only by their initials, lawyers would have no reticence criticizing the judges' misperceived deficiencies. Query: Should we use both or one initial? It is a tough choice for me. If I use the initial of my first name only, I could be confused with Hester Prynne. If I use the initials of my first and last name, I could be confused with the Attorney General. Affirming a 105-year prison sentence in a criminal appeal and signing it "A.G." might seem biased. At times I feel as estranged from our impersonal world as was Franz Kafka. I think I will follow his lead and write a novel about the evil that permeates our world. The first sentence will read, "Call me Arthur G." Mmm… maybe we should drop the G.