Monday, March 01, 2010

Cutting It Short

I was working out with my trainer, Shane, and he told me about a job opportunity for which I was well suited. Please no comments about having a trainer. When I was a kid, we didn’t have trainers, life coaches, Pilates instructors, wardrobe consultants, nutritionists, party planners, and the cadre of “professionals” we require to manage our lives.

But that was then. Now, I have concocted a rationale for working with a trainer. It “boosts” my energy level and sharpens my mind so that I can track attorneys’ complex arguments. This in turn enables me and my staff to craft the important decisions that are a part of the weave and nap that comprise the law’s fabric of our great state, the hallmark of a civilized society. You don’t buy it? Then how about this? Working with a trainer builds core strength, keeps my immune system robust, and my bones dense and strong. Buy that? You acknowledge that reason is more plausible but you are still unconvinced?

O.K. I will drop the pretense. The true reason stems from my affinity for dwarfs. This is because I am short, chronically short. I have been this way all my life, and now, with advancing age, I am getting shorter. Who knows, in another few years, I could disappear. I was hoping that maybe Shane could stretch me out so that I don’t become microscopic. But the job opportunity he offered me gives me pause. A friend of his made a movie and, to promote it, advertised for a dwarf to dress in a costume and shoot T-shirts out of a gun. He tells me it pays well. I told him I would think about it. It might detract from the dignity of the judiciary.

When I was a child, about four years old, we lived on the top floor of a hotel on the beach in Venice, California. But, even then, the characters I remember in my life could have come from Venice, Italy, straight out of a Fellini movie. This was during World War II. They say that people born during that time are on average much shorter than people born today…after they grow up.

The hotel is still there, and on Thursday mornings, when I bike down to Venice with a group of friends, I point it out. They are tired of hearing about it, but not tired of hearing about what life was like then for a four year old. You could not go on the beach at night, and you had to draw the window shades that faced the ocean. If even a sliver of light shone through the window, there would be a knock on your door and a volunteer air raid warden would tell you to pull your shade all the way down. Japanese submarines had fired upon an oil refinery in Goleta.

Our hotel was on what we called “the front.” It was like the boardwalk on Coney Island, only there were no boards. It was made of cement and was a place for people to walk and for “trams” to carry passengers from one place to another. It extended for several miles from Santa Monica to Venice. There were piers in Santa Monica. One was a fishing pier that extended out into a boat harbor that is no longer there. Further south was an amusement pier in Ocean Park, the forerunner to "POP" built in the 1960’s. Next to that pier was a short pier called Lick Pier on which was the Aragon Ballroom where the Lawrence Welk band played relentlessly. A few miles south of that pier was Venice Pier at the base of which was what we then called a motion picture theater. It was owned by a husband and wife, both of whom were dwarfs. I regret to say that the pier, the motion picture theater, and the dwarfs are gone.

Husband and wife would walk along the “front” in the morning on their way to their theater which they opened around noon. Every morning they would stop in front of our hotel to rest awhile on one of the benches that lined the “front.” I would watch them climb up on the bench where they would sit side by side holding hands. This image is seared into my brain and it gives me comfort that I can call it to mind at will.

So I have this affinity with what is short. I cheer for the Lilliputians. One of my favorite books is “The Dwarf” by Nobel Prize winner, Par Lagerkvist. True, that dwarf was evil incarnate. But I view him as a metaphor for evil more than a real live person. One of my favorite actors was Billy Barty. He founded an organization championing the cause of what he described as the “Little People,” with the emphasis on “people.” I did have one unfortunate experience with a dwarf when I was about 10 years old. He was dressed in a Donald Duck costume and I pulled on his bill. He took off his head and bawled me out. Scared the hell out of me. I’m over it now.

Neither my wife, who is even shorter than I, nor I are prejudiced against tall people. Our best friends are tall. They have to look down at us, but they assure us they look up to us figuratively. I try not to overcompensate in my profession. I treat tall lawyers well. My wife and I are big basketball fans. The important thing is to think tall.

Short, by itself, is neither good nor bad, but in some contexts it can be horrendous. California’s current budget shortfall, for example, has shortened some tempers in the judiciary. But civility has not waned in two judicial leaders, both of whom are tall in stature, intellect and integrity. One can look up to both of them literally and figuratively.

We have all heard and read about Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Tim McCoy’s concerns about the judiciary’s budget deficits and his predictions about courtroom closures and substantial employee layoffs. He takes issue with Chief George’s allocation of a limited judicial budget. In particular, McCoy would like to see funds currently allocated for courtroom construction temporarily diverted to the Los Angeles Superior Court and funds for the computerized California Case Management System put on hold.

The Chief and his staff point out that the deplorable condition of many courthouses throughout the state renders them unusable. Construction and repairs give us safe courthouses and provide much-needed jobs. And the costs for the case management system are on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Implementation of the program statewide has been deferred beyond 2013.

Many parties affected by budget cuts have legitimate concerns. I am sympathetic to Judge McCoy’s worries, but the alarms he raises publicly may be, at this point, more problematic than productive. In an editorial on February 10, 2010, the Los Angeles Times acknowledges that McCoy and the Chief are the “most polite of disputants,” but cautions that “ angry judges and turf-defending court officials,” backing either George or McCoy, threaten “to make all of them look more adolescent than judicial.” The editorial points out that "the size of the budget problem is not yet clear, and won’t be before the state’s May budget revision.”

We in the judiciary may have differing views on a variety of issues, but we have not been fractious like many of our legislative colleagues of recent times. As the Times editorial points out, the courts do not have a strong public constituency, and “[a] court system at war with itself is ill-equipped to make its best case to the Legislature for sufficient funding and in the court of public opinion for respect and continued independence.”

I would like to see Judge McCoy, who represents the largest trial court in the country, sit down with the Chief, and representatives of the Administrative Office of the Courts, so that each side could understand and fairly consider facts that support the other’s point of view. That is what judges are trained to do.

Attorney Tim Tosta might have a good approach for such a meeting. He survived what had been diagnosed as incurable cancer. This life-threatening experience changed his life and his approach to living, solving problems, and practicing law. In a column that appeared in the Daily Journal on January 11, 2010, he described his efforts trying to help a hospice patient. He completely misinterpreted what the struggling patient was trying to tell him. He finally realized his premise was faulty and then was able to provide the comfort the dying patient was asking for.

The approach he used with the patient could well be used by all of us dealing with any problem, including the budget crises. It is easy to make mistakes about what we observe. Tosta suggests that we not “forego the opportunity to test” what we think is the “truth.” That gives us the opportunity "to create solutions more consistent with [one’s] observations and experience.” Tosta warns that “regrettably we are often so filled with reactive behavior that we fail to make important inquiries.”

The budget shortfall requires that we adopt a view to what is best for the state overall. The Chief has fought tirelessly on behalf of the judiciary throughout the state without showing favoritism for any particular court. It is not an easy balancing act, but cuts have to be made. The budget shortfall is critical, but it is also fluid. Perhaps a solution could be forged out of such a meeting. The sky above may be cloudy, threatening a menacing storm, but that does not mean it is falling.

However this turns out, one thing is certain: budget shortfalls require sacrifice. I, along with most judges in the state, have taken a voluntary cut in pay. That makes me short both in cash and height. I thought again about that job shooting T-shirts out of a gun to supplement my paycheck. How could it bring ridicule to the judiciary when I will be hidden from view? But I used Tosta’s approach to the problem and decided against it. Some snotty little kid might mess with my costume, and I just might take of my head and give him a piece of my mind.