Monday, February 07, 2005

If Your Theme is "It's Good Enough," It's Time to Change Your Tune

I recently had a birthday. It wasn’t a good one. It came at the same time of the year as all the others. I guess it wasn’t all that realistic to expect this year to be different. My age makes me eligible for curmudgeon status. But I was a precocious child and became a curmudgeon at four. Well you would too, if your birthday comes, as mine does, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, a few days before New Years. I suppose that is why so many things other than poorly written briefs irritate me during the holiday season.
Take holiday cards for example. Every law firm in town sends its expensive custom card with a snow scene from some vague year in the nostalgic past. There is a sleigh pulled by a frisky horse with cheerful ice skaters in the background. No matter that this is Los Angeles and it’s 82 degrees outside. Or maybe they send a “witty ”card showing Santa being served with a complaint for flying without a permit. And for that personal touch the card bears the name of the law firm in colorful red print. Sometimes two or three different law firms send the same card. They should have a central registry like a wedding registry to avoid duplication. No matter, they all go in the basket along with the third draft of an opinion I am working on. For all I know, the firm on the card represents a party.
But what is the most irritating of all, is the number of form letters I receive during the holiday. These letters often come from persons I hardly know and are filled with information about dozens of people I don’t know, and never want to know or meet, ever. The assembly line letters illustrate our addiction to efficiency and our yearning to be personal. In fact, these letters are the product of lazy writers who will not take the time to craft a letter to a specific individual. Instead they assume their addressees are fungible, bound together by an enduring interest in prosaic stories about unremarkable people living tedious lives. “Dear(name of the addressee written in the blank), Mort and I painted the bathroom last March-only we ran out of paint. Since we bought the paint a long time before we started painting we couldn’t get exactly the same color, so we painted the ceiling a different color than the walls. We thought it looked kind of funny at first, but I think its OK for a bathroom; well, at least the guest bathroom. Ronald, our dog, caught a muskrat last July, brought it into Sparky’s room and dropped it in his bed. It caused quite a ruckus.”
And then it occurred to me that perhaps the judicial opinions I write are strikingly similar to the form letters I detest and may be just as boring. So who was I to criticize well-meaning people who had included me as a recipient of their insipid form letters. I needed a straight answer, and so I decided to call a friend who was not shy about voicing his opinions on any subject under the sun including holiday cards, form letters, my spoken and written opinions, and even my columns. From him I would not receive solace, but uncompromising honesty. What else could I expect from one who had authored a trilogy of short novels entitled, “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead.”
But the day after my birthday, I, and the rest of the world suffered a devastating loss. The friend I was about to call, the legendary Artie Shaw, had passed away. I was fortunate to have known Artie for the past 15 years and his insistence on perfection strongly influenced me. But Artie was a genius to whom perfection was no stranger. To me, genius and perfection are aliens, more mystifying than the Bush twins. But to him, who no doubt was the finest clarinetist of all time, perfection was a constant yet nagging companion. This was one marriage that lasted to the end.
He was an expert in just about everything. The upstairs of his home in Newbury Park was a scaled down version of the New York Public Library. You could divide the library up into departments, the sciences, including quantum mechanics, and astrophysics, history, philosophy from the pre Socratics to the 20th Century, painting and sculpture, and literature. Yes, he read every damn one of those books at least a couple of times and remembered everything he read. He once asked me who, not what I was reading. I said, “Proust.” He then launched into an exegesis on “Swanns Way.” He refused to take credit for his ability to recall everything he read. “I was born with a photographic memory,” he said. “Therefore I don’t get the credit.” “Do you get credit for understanding all that you have read” I asked? That question elicited a smile.
So I have been forced to ponder the dilemma of judicial opinions and form letters alone, yet I can imagine Artie's analysis. He would point out their similarities. They are written for a large audience, not just the litigants. They seek to elucidate points that are presumably of interest to a wide, albeit limited audience. Judicial opinions that are poorly organized and dwell on facts that do not define the legal principle at issue are more like the form letters that ramble, and at best have limited interest.
I can hear Artie pointing out to me that this is entirely avoidable. One merely has to take the time and commit to writing an opinion that is clear and readable, something of interest to the reader. And the same advice can be given to the writer of an appellant’s or respondent’s brief, or the writer of a form letter. No one cares about the muskrat dropped in Sparky’s bed, especially Sparky, a 17 year old line backer on his high school football team, who with fervor wishes his mother hadn’t written about the muskrat incident. His grandmother loves the story.
But what of the case where there is widespread interest. The obligation to be clear about what you wish to tell your audience is all the more essential. Take for example, U.S. v Booker, 2005 DJDAR 410 (U.S. Jan. 12, 2005) the United States Supreme Court decision that invalidates the Federal Sentencing guidelines—I guess. Booker tells us that the guidelines are unconstitutional but courts still have the discretion to use them. Hmmm.
Artie would have disapproved. The ruling leaves much to ponder. Does not Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 US 466 (2000) and United States v. Blakely 124 S.Ct.2531 (2004) hold that facts that increase a sentence must be decided by a jury? No stranger to litigation, Artie said, “If you are a judge making important decisions, people ought to know what the hell you are talking about.”
Whether writing a form letter, a brief , an opinion, or engaging in an worthwhile endeavor (that should exclude columns), Artie's advice applies; "Good enough is not good enough." Printed in the program prepared for his memorial service was a poem dedicated to him by his friend, A.C. Greene, the poet, not the basketball player. It is titled, "The Soul Of The Song." It speaks to the mission of the artist, but however limited may be our own talents, it offers insight for those who believe that "good enough is not good enough." It reads:
He taught the clarinet to think
Not just to sing.
To explore the music it was making.
To let the fingers probe and find
The hidden places,
The crevices of meaning and emotion.
A good song has---------
But must be found and captured
By some divinity or other,
A melody that cannot just be played,
Can't be chartered,
The secret tempos and their keys
Can only be discovered
By a mind that is listening for the soul
The manuscript does not display.