Tuesday, November 09, 2004

What's Behind a Name?

What was a great present for a bright kid in 1953? A Gilbert chemistry set. My name happened to be Gilbert. It still is. When I was in high school, everyone thought I would be a wiz in chemistry. That’s how stupid people were in those days. Thank God my name was not Einstein. Is Ernest Hemingway’s brother, the accountant, a brilliant novelist? I proved everyone wrong when I took high school chemistry and coined the phrase, “Worse Things Through Chemistry,” in defiance of DuPont’s slogan which defined chemistry as the road to Shangrila. DuPont labs manufactured napalm used in the Vietnam War. In 1996 Fatboy Slim made an album entitled “Better Things Through Chemistry.” One of the tunes was called “Next to Nothing." That’s what I knew about chemistry. I was a total klutz in the lab. One day I mixed the wrong chemicals. The explosion was not all that powerful. No one was hurt. I received minor burns on my arms. The ointment helped. Within a week the scars had cleared up. The teacher was sympathetic. I passed the course. In college, chemistry was a prerequisite for medical school. That’s why I opted for law school, thereby saving the lives of innumerable potential patients and avoiding being sued in medical malpractice suits.
My name created further difficulties for me in law school. The less astute students thought I had authored the Gilbert Law School Outlines. Professors held the Gilbert outlines in contempt and saw them as the counterpart to Classic Comics in literature classes. But then not many of my law professors seemed to know much about literature. The more malevolent law professors would call on me in class, prefacing a convoluted question with, “Kindly enlighten us, Mr. Gilbert, with an outline to the solution to this apparent conundrum.” I didn’t have the solution. The chemistry just wasn’t right.
We give names much importance, but a name is merely a sound or a squiggle on a page. It should not be confused with the actual thing. Call a weed a rose, it still won’t have the fragrance. Just ask Shakespeare. Jude Law is an actor, not a lawyer. I bet he doesn’t have the slightest idea how to draft a living trust. That our birthdays fall on the same day has no significance. Sometimes names get close to the mark. Take Michael P. Judge, for example, the Los Angeles County Public Defender. His office represents the poor and the disadvantaged charged with criminal offenses. Although not deciding cases as a judge, he and his deputies pursue justice for their clients. Judges dispense justice, don’t they? So there is a connection. But if he should ever become a judge, that is, if there should ever be a governor who will appoint a criminal defense attorney to the bench, he would be known as Judge Judge. Sometime ago a state senator sought to change his first name to senator. It is rumored that his favorite dish was mahi mahi. My computer thinks these are spelling errors.
Judge Minor Wisdom, the courageous judge of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals who protected and guarded civil rights and steadfastly implemented Brown v. Board of Education was anything but minor, and in all respects wise. There the name worked. The same with Judge Learned Hand, one of the most learned jurists of our century. Can’t say the same about Judge Learned Foot, who has appeared in this column on many occasions. He often steps into trouble. I met a man whose last name was Cool. He would have made a Cool Judge.
But names conjure up images that can enhance or detract depending on our goals. Some of the candidates running for judicial office refer to themselves as “criminal prosecutor.” They no doubt believe that such designation resonates better with voters than the simple “prosecutor." I wonder if the voters know that these “criminal prosecutors” cannot be prosecutors on the bench. A plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer I know wants to run for judge as a “civil prosecutor.” Many years ago I knew a judge who was up for reelection. She drew a challenger. The judge designated herself “incumbent” on the ballot statement. That was the kiss of death. She might as well have called herself “criminal defense attorney.” She lost.
Going further back in time when women judges were a rarity, a judge named Nancy changed her first name to Noel, which apparently won her the male chauvinist vote. And in other ways she copied men. Xaivier Cugat, the famous Latin band leader of the 1940’s, led the orchestra in sambas and mambos with a Chihuahua nestled in his arms. The judge conducted her trials with a Chihuahua nestled in her arm. That was a bad idea. The Chihuahua was a tough sentencer. He has taken issue with a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Cetacean Community v. Bush (9th Cir. 2004) 2004 WL 2348373, which holds that the “Cetacean Community,” the world’s whale, porpoise and dolphin population, does not have standing to sue over the Navy’s use of sonar to detect “quiet submarines" at long range. The high strung Chihuahua with a strong aversion to water nevertheless felt a kinship to the laid back cetaceans because “we are all mammals.”
Titles and names mean nothing. The title “Judge,” for instance, carries little weight. Many, many years ago (the statute of limitations has run), I called a popular restaurant to make reservations. I wanted a good table, so I told the person on the phone that I was Judge Gilbert. He made the reservation for Judd Gilbert. I performed a wedding ceremony and at the conclusion pronounced the couple married by virtue of the authority vested in me as a justice on the Court of Appeal. During the toast to the newly married couple, a well known actor referred to me as the “Justice of the Peace.” I would just as soon not use the title. But “retired” judges who become active private judges want to be known and introduced as judges. For some reason you will find them in abundance at bar functions they rarely attended in their pre-retirement days. And those who were not the most congenial bench officers have suddenly learned to smile and be ingratiating with members of the bar.
Names and titles are deceiving. I know someone named Small who is 6 feet tall. I know someone named Short and he is short. There is even someone named Jack Schitt. I don’t know him.
We should all do and be our best and forget about our names and titles. They say nothing about who we are. This is particularly true for judges. The best appellations a judge can carry are “fair,” “objective” and “unbiased,” for example. Because they must be earned, they are the ones that count.
As for me, no need to call me “your honor." Like the Chihuahua, I favor the cetaceans. Call me Gilbert.