Thursday, March 31, 2011


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Protests in Madison

Last weekend I was in Madison, Wisconsin with the excellent moot court team I have been coaching (Allison Ovenden and Eric Omhdahl), as they competed in the Evans Con Law competition.

The hotel for the competition was directly across the street from the State Capitol, so I got a birds-eye view of the protests going on there last Saturday. After soaking up the scene for a bit, I have an observation: They are all wrong. The protesters are wrong. The Democratic legislators who fled to Chicago were wrong. Scott Walker is wrong. And... all of it can be fixed with an election.

First, the protesters are wrong. Many of the signs seemed to claim that something about what Scott Walker was doing was "anti-democratic." Nothing could be further from the truth. The bare facts are that Republicans in Wisconsin swept an election. They won majorities in the state house, and the Governor's seat. Now they can pursue their objectives, and it should not be surprising that those objectives include bashing labor, giving tax breaks to corporations, and cutting social services. Those things are all part of the Republican agenda, and have been for years. That's not "anti-democratic" or some kind of scandal-- it's the direct result of how people in Wisconsin voted. This was chosen, not imposed.

Second, the Democratic legislators who fled the state to deny a quorum to the Republicans were wrong. Again, people... you lost an election! To take your ball and go home (or, I suppose, leave home) is truly anti-democratic.

Finally, Scott Walker is wrong. His odd focus on removing collective bargaining from government worker unions might be right or wrong, but it is not an immediate issue, given the concessions the unions offered. It's the wrong fight right now, when immediate budget issues need to be addressed. Take the concessions, shore up the budget, and move on to long-term structural changes later. When people choose odd fights, I often wonder where their true interests lie, and that is the case here.

Moreover, given what is going on in other states, it seems pretty clear that this attack on public unions is a national Republican goal. Part of that attack has been to portray teachers and other public employees (such as prosecutors) as overpaid. There is something deeply offensive about that, knowing the sacrifices that prosecutors and teachers make. The truth is this: The current economic crisis was caused by a mortgage bubble created by hedge fund traders and other extremely rich people. They profited by taking huge risks, then many got bailed out with tax money. Those people and institutions have largely come out of the crisis unscathed. If you want to look at irresponsible, greedy fat-cats who act contrary to the public interest, you need look no further than them; yet somehow there are politicians such as Scott Walker who choose to complain instead about second-grade teachers as the real culprits. Those attacks are lacking in principle, proportion, and respect for working people. I do think there will be a price for that disrespect-- a price paid at the polls.

Which is how it is supposed to work, everyone. I love that about this country.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Graduation dreams

Last night, I had a dream that I was in the audience at a graduation ceremony. As it began, I remembered that I was supposed to give the commencement address, ran up to the front, and started talking about womens' basketball. The speech included me shooting free throws.

Last Spring, I got the opportunity to give two graduation addresses on the same day-- at a grade school and then at a high school-- and didn't do anything like that, fortunately.

So, Razorites-- what is the worst possible topic for a graduation address?


Best American Cities for doing stuff

1) New York
2) Chicago
3) Minneapolis
4) Los Angeles
5) Vancouver

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


"Also, there appears to be a panda in your tree..."

A Minister and friend of the Razor passed along this oddity, which apparently is based on a tape-recorded message to a minister here in Minnesota. Please rest assured that I neither wiggle my butt around nor do I move one leg up and down during church, and am appalled that this kind of behavior is occurring elsewhere.


Congratulations, Spanish Medievalist!

The good news out of Baylor is that Razorite and savant The Spanish Medievalist has been named a full Professor. Congratulations, SM!

And now this, from Pickles:

Monday, March 28, 2011


Hello, Crazytime!


Here is the line-up for the final four:

#3 UConn
#5 Kentucky
#8 Butler
#11 VCU

It's the craziest tournament ever, as no one or two seed made it to the final four. My bracket is a sea of red-- my championship game prediction of Ohio State over BYU became laughable days ago. [On the women's side, there are all four #1 seeds and three of the four #2 seeds left in the elite 8-- a model of predictability).

I should note here that I'm talking D-1. If you haven't been watching enough ESPN 8 ("The Ocho!"), you might have missed the fact that my own St. Thomas won the Division III championship at a final four that featured academic powerhouses Williams and Middlebury (which is one of the Spanish Medievalist's 7 alma maters). Go, Tommies!

So... back to Division I. Let's play a game for people with busted brackets. Pick the final four outcomes, including a score for the final game. The person who gets closest will win a special prize-- they can take over the Razor for a day. Fire away!

[Clippy says: It looks like you are trying to predict the final four! Hint! Don't forget that VCU plays Butler and UConn plays Kentucky in the semifinals!]

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Sunday Reflection: Processional

On Thursday, I gave a talk in Washington-- breaking out a new idea which I hope could be transformational. Watch the Razor for more details on that idea later this week.

One of the best parts of that day was the processional.

In colonial times, there was the widespread belief that one could get an inspired answer to a deep question by opening the Bible randomly and consulting the first words your eyes fall upon.

I'm not a proponent of such an approach to theology (though I seem to get into arguments sometimes with people who appear to rely on this method). However, I do attach some mystical determinative value to my iPod's shuffle feature, which is even more stupid. It is fascinating, though, to see what pops up at any given moment.

Most recently, I was heading to the University of the District of Columbia to say my piece on Thursday of this week. I was listening to the iPod, and the shuffle feature gave me three great songs in a row-- anthems, really. I rose up out of the Metro station, strode out onto the street, and was ready to take on the world-- or at least people who think the only option for reform is the total legalization of narcotics.

Here were the songs:

Harvest for the World by the Isley Brothers
Blue and Gold by BNLX
Clocks by Coldplay (see below)

We all find our processionals; or perhaps they find us...

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Gray or Blue by Jaymay

There are two things I love in this song. One is the idea of struggling to express oneself through the xylophone. The other is this wonderful line: "I think it's very dangerous if we don't take what's ours." Rock on, Jaymay...

For another view of this song, look here.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Haiku Friday with Monty, the Law Dog

When I was at Yale Law, we had a lot of good ways to deal with stress. For example, I lived at the beach some 20 miles away from school, which helped a lot (in fact, I don't remember much stress at all).

Apparently, some people needed a little more, so now the school has a dog you can check out of the library. The dog is named Monty.

I am not making this up.

I'm a little baffled by the whole thing, but it does seem to create a great opportunity to haiku about dogs. You can haiku about any dog-- a dog you used to own, maybe the neighbor's dog, whatever.

My only requirement this week is that the first line be just the name of the dog, and lines two and three be short.

Here is mine:

Purveyer of slobber
Will you lick off my stress?

Now it is your turn...

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Political Mayhem Thursday

Since this evening I am giving a presentation on narcotics policy, lets talk about the position apparently held by everyone at the conference except me-- that narcotics should be legalized.

I am against it for two reasons. First, I think the social costs of hard drugs are too high to tolerate (marijuana is a different question).

Second, I do think there are things we can do that will work to curtail drug use-- that's what I am speaking about tonight.

What's your take?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A seasonal reminder from the Razor

Spring has arrived, and with it comes the annual scourge of cooties. If you have not yet been vaccinated, be careful to stay away from carriers of cooties, and don't let them touch you.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


IPLawGuy 49: Dee Dee's evil plan

Monday, March 21, 2011


The Death of William Stuntz

Last week, Harvard Law Professor William Stuntz died of cancer at age 52. I never met him, even though we both went to William and Mary and later studied the same odd mix of subjects (criminal law, Christianity, and procedure's impact on outcomes). He had a profound influence on me through his writing, which was muscular, direct, compelling, and always interesting. He was one of the few academics capable of writing a 50-page article which all read like journalism.

It has been his style, above all others, that I have tried to emulate in my own writing.

At the core of his writing was always a sense of righteousness, even judgment, but most often what he was judging were systems of law which simply did not accomplish a worthwhile goal. He changed the course of my own work when I first read his article "The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law" (100 Michigan Law Review 505, 2001).

I was on a plane, and started reading the piece halfway through the flight. We touched down, everyone got up, but I stayed in my seat, transfixed. Eventually, a flight attendant ushered me out; I kept reading as I walked, my bag thrown over my shoulder. His writing was that good. Here is the start of the second paragraph of that article:

But criminal law does not drive criminal punishment. It would be closer to the truth to say that criminal punishment drives criminal law.

Truth laid out in short, clear sentences is too rare in my line of work.

On Thursday, I will present a paper in Washington. The soul of that paper is what I learned from William Stuntz. One of the best parts of him, perhaps, did not die and never will.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Our greatest sin

Whenever some tragedy such as the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan occurs, some goof goes on radio or TV and claims it is because of that nation or city's "sins." It's incredibly unchristian, for one thing, to respond to a victim with blame (Jesus provided the opposite example time and again), and it also has a strange idea at its core-- that communities have "sins."

I have always thought of sin as something that relates only to individuals, and their moral accountability to their society and God (depending on belief). I'm not sure that a community can sin as a whole, because that community will always contain dissent in some measure to whatever is happening.

This leads me to two questions, which I leave to you fine people of the Razor:

1) Is there such a thing as "sin" which is related to a group larger than an individual?

2) If so, what are the sins of our own society?

Saturday, March 19, 2011


The Eagles have landed

One of the people I miss in Waco is my friend Matt Johnson, who serves as Judge of Texas' 54th District Court. Matt has a great mind for history, and has made a point of researching his workplace, the beautiful county courthouse in the middle of town in Waco.

On Thursday, Matt sent me these pictures of the iconic zinc eagles that have adorned the courthouse for 109 years, and are now being replaced with reproductions:

Apparently, the plans originally called for the glass eyes of the eagles to be illuminated at night-- which would either be very creepy or totally cool, or perhaps both...

Friday, March 18, 2011


It's Friday, Friday, @*$@^$# Haiku Friday!

It's amazing! I am going to file suit if I can't get this terrible song out of my head. (I will admit to enjoying a few of the remakes, especially this and this). I even tried listening to better songs about Friday, but that didn't work.

Also, what's with the creepy pedophile following the 13-year-olds from the bus stop?

Here are the lyrics (in part):

7am, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)

Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?


Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today i-is Friday, Friday (Partyin’)
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today

Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes after...wards
I don’t want this weekend to end

[Rap Verse]


It’s Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend
Friday, Friday
Gettin’ down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend

Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
Fun, fun, fun, fun
Lookin’ forward to the weekend

So, I think this is totally haiku-worthy. Please don't worry too much about poetry convention (Rebecca Black doesn't either)-- just make it three short lines. Here are some possible themes:

1) Fun fun fun fun
2) Partyin'
3) How the days progress through the week (ie, Friday follows Thursday)
4) The weekend
5) Friday
6) The state of popular music generally
7) Cereal
8) Creepy guys following the school bus wanting to "party"
9) Fun fun fun fun
10) Partyin'

Here is mine:

Friday, Friday!
Gonna be writin' 'bout drug policy,
Fun fun fun fun

Now it is your turn...

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Coleman Hawkins v. Rebecca Black

This morning, I got to Crim Law five minutes early and played a Coleman Hawkins video, because one of the cases involved this "Professor of the Saxophone" (and because St. Thomas has awesome classroom technology):

Later, I threatened to show this next time:

It was an amazing class this morning... the class had another assignment due this morning, and they were dead. But then, somehow, North Dakota came up, and people lightened up, and pretty soon it was a pretty good time.

So my question is...

Is this Rebecca Black video a parody or just straight-up bad? Or is it Fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun?

I think we must haiku about this tomorrow...


Political Mayhem Thursday: The End of Nuclear Power?

As things look more and more tragic in Japan, one probable consequence is that nuclear power is going to fall back out of favor again. In recent years, nuclear was promoted as a viable option by many decision-makers, including President Obama.

Is it still worth considering nuclear power? Under what terms?

Also, it looks like the international crises in Bahrain, Libya and Japan are not capturing the President's attention, according to some critics, as he heads off to South America for five days to promote trade. Should he stay home?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Songs with great saxophone


What's Shakin' at St. Thomas

As I walked into the law school this morning, I came through the most wonderful scene-- people were arriving to be sworn in as American citizens at a big ceremony right there in the atrium of our school. The people looked nervous and proud; there was something wonderfully infectious about it. I walked into class happy.

Next up: Today I am speaking to the Lex Vitae group here in Minneapolis on The Death Penalty and the Culture of Life. Among the 50-some people who will come, I expect a good discussion and a great opportunity (for me) to learn.

Plans are shaping up for the next big event, too. Before our second round in Richmond on April 16, Jeanne Bishop and I will be presenting the trial of Christ (under Virginia procedure) here at St. Thomas. As my Baylor students will remember, in things like this I try to include students in any way possible, and for this we have both chosen second chairs for the trial from the student body. Mine will be 3L Jonathon Scheib, while Jeanne will be working with 1L Sara Sommervold.

Meanwhile, Jeanne was the subject of this interesting and important news profile yesterday. The photos included several of Ms. Bishop committing various crimes (I think she was demonstrating various ways you can commit a felony without a handgun). For example, here she is tagging a garage door with her gang sign:

And in this one, she is preparing to strangle the driver of a car (good use of gloves, counselor!):

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Ronald Reagon on Unions

Of course, as with many things, what he said and what he did were two different things. Reagan's legacy is confusing in that way, though I very often agree with what he said, especially about small government.

[thanks to Bob Darden for sending along this intriguing video]


iPad 2!

One sign that I am not in Waco anymore is that there are two Apple stores close to my house-- a dangerous temptation.

I went in to look at the new iPad 2, which hit the market last week with great fanfare. No wonder, too-- it is a beautiful and remarkable machine. It feels great in the hands, has wonderful graphics, and could entertain a person for hours. The best word for it is "elegant."

But, I didn't buy one.

In short, I realized, the iPad 2 is a beautiful, elegant machine that does not fit my use of the internet and computers. It is great for consuming things on the internet-- movies, facebook, the Razor, things like that.

However, I'm not so much of a consumer of internet content; I'm much more of a content provider. When I have a computer turned on, I am usually writing something-- an academic paper, a post for the Razor, or a short-form piece such as those on the Huffington Post. The iPad doesn't have a keyboard, and I find the on-screen keyboard hard to use. That elegant machine is optimized for taking in what had been created, not for creating. For my uses, the ideal machine is the MacBook Air.

So, someday, I'll get one of those...

Monday, March 14, 2011


Coming Up...

In a week-and-a-half, I will be in Washington DC to present a paper at this intriguing conference, where I will be speaking on the plenary panel on the evening of Thursday, March 24.

I'm going to argue for a fundamentally conservative change to our drug control policy. Instead of the current big-government tactics of mass incarceration with no sense of the business elements of drug trafficking, I think we need to solve the problem by treating narcotics as a business-- and make that business fail. Obviously, the tactic of sweeping up low-wage laborers and incarcerating them hasn't worked, which should be no surpise in an economy awash in unskilled labor. Instead of trying to deprive the drug networks of labor, we should deny them capital.

Here is the intro to my piece, which is titled "What If We Really Cared About Narcotics?":

I. Introduction

Law enforcement actions should be judged on one simple measure: Are they solving a problem? After all, we Americans loath the loss of freedom and the spending of tax dollars, and we should never take away citizens’ freedom and money unless there actually is a problem being solved.

Is narcotics trafficking a problem? Of course it is. Narcotics trafficking and use (like alcohol) leads to violence, it undermines productivity, and it rips apart the social fabric of families and communities.

Has law enforcement solved that problem? Of course not. Drugs use in this country continues at high levels, and a primary indicator of the success of narcotics interdiction, the price of drugs, has gone down, not up.

This article argues that the failure of law enforcement to (even in part) solve the problem of narcotics trafficking is rooted in a failure to discern the basic nature of drug trafficking. Drug trafficking is a business. If we really cared about stopping drug trafficking, we would think hard about how to shut down that business—not about how many people we arrest, not about the heaps of marijuana we might seize and photograph for the news shows, but about how to make that business fail.

In short, our mistake has been to try to make narcotics businesses fail by creating a shortage of labor through massive incarceration. This is an impossible task at a time when markets are flooded with cheap, unskilled labor, and it should be no surprise that we have failed. Arresting all the greeters at Wal-Mart will not shut down that corporation. Instead, we should have focused on what really makes a business fail—a lack of cash flow and credit.

In other words, we have been following our urge to punish, when we should have been following the money. Spending vast sums of money trying to stop drugs from coming into the country is not the answer—instead, we should stop the money from going out of the U.S. to source countries, because this disruption of cash flow will make that business fail.

Part II of this article will describe the failure of the war on drugs as a failure of our primary tool—incarcerating low-wage workers. Part III will move on to describe what a “business failure” model of narcotics restriction would look like, including the laws that would need to change. Finally, Part IV will argue for this shift from a focus on labor to a focus on capital in narcotics control at this moment in our history, as we move forward as a nation with at least some narcotics remaining illegal.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The Tragedy in Japan

Like everyone else, I have been following with growing sadness the tragedies unfolding right now in Japan.

One aspect of the disaster is that the resurgence of nuclear power around the world will probably be slowed or reversed as partial meltdowns have occurred at two of the reactors in Northern Japan. In a world with an already-uncertain energy future, this destabilization of one option makes the choices harder, if more realistic.


Sunday Reflection: The Primacy of the Gospels

For a while, I was attending a church here in Edina which I enjoyed in some ways. The building and grounds are beautiful, the minister is bright and funny, and they have excellent music.

Those were the bright spots. On the less bright side, for three months no one in the congregation introduced themselves (other than the ministers or during the passing of the peace) or made an effort to reach out. On that one, I share the blame-- I didn't make much of an effort either, and this has always been a failing of mine as a congregant, too. In ten years at 7th and James in Waco, I rarely sought out visitors, and I deeply regret that.

The thing that really drove me away, though, was a near-total absence of the gospels from the service. In the times I attended, there seemed to be more discussion of Leviticus than the actual teaching of Christ, and the reading for the sermon was uniformly from the Epistles of Paul.

I understand that there is much wisdom to be gleaned from those sources, but in the end they do not nourish me the way that Christ himself does. I am a Christian, and that means that I give primacy to the teachings of Jesus. That's what I need to feed my soul. The context and history of the Old Testament are essential, Paul is an important teacher, but the necessary discussions of those sources are empty wineskins without the animating presence of God's own Son. It is not the same to hear what others (such as Paul) taught about Christ as to hear what it was Christ himself taught.

There is something that resounds in me about those gospel stories-- they are counter-cultural, surprising, complex, challenging, and time and again lead us to principles which can still inform our own choices. Perhaps more importantly, they are to me the clearest revealed word of God, and that in itself demands my attention.

This morning I will go to St. Stephens Episcopal, which is a short walk from home. The liturgy there is a far cry from my Quaker days, but I bring the same heart. It is a heart that thrills to one part of that liturgy, the presentation of the Bible before the reading from the gospel. The book is held aloft with reverence, and the congregation stands for the reading. I remember Scott Davis doing this in Grosse Pointe, and last week my soul responded when this was done at Holy Comforter in Richmond as I sat by the pulpit. That presentation reflects the ordering of truths I believe in-- that it is the teaching of Christ that we hold aloft as we precede in this life, and it is those same teachings that rise above us, always demanding that we aspire to more from ourselves and this world.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


So, Batman went to Yale Law School?

According to the Yale alumni magazine, he did. I don't remember him there, though.

Among my own peers at YLS, there were a few Bruce Wayne types rolling around, but I was not one of them. Top candidate for secret life in a cape: Jon Nuechterlein.


The end of the week...

Whew! What a week.

The highlight, of course, was the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. There was more, though, which made it a good and important time, and me an exhausted man.

Yesterday, I gave a sample class for people who have been admitted to St. Thomas law school, which was a real privilege. I thought hard about what to use, and I hope that it worked well. It was wonderful to look out at that crowd and hope that they will be my students next year.

I also am pushing ahead with a few other projects for the next few weeks. One is the great moot court team I am coaching for the Evans Con Law tournament in Madison in two weeks. Another is the article I am working on for a symposium at the Univ. of DC on March 24 (you can see the schedule for that here). More on those developments as they happen!

In the meantime, I think this is the first time I've ever appeared in the Episcopal News Service...

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Haiku Friday: The Books You Loved

Last Sunday, I got to spend some time with Bill and Jane Smith, who were my neighbors when I was a kid.

During dinner, they remembered some of my odd habits as a child. Apparently, with some frequency, I would go down to their house and bang on the door until they gave me a book. Once I had one, I would sit there on their porch and read it. Then I would demand another book, and sometimes Mrs. Smith would insist I eat an apple before she would give me another one.

What a weird kid!

Anyways, I remember some of the books I went there for-- the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. Let's haiku about that today: The books we loved as kids.

I will go first:

Sat on the Smith's porch,
Read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,
Then went to college.

Now it is your turn! The first line should have about five syllables, the second line about seven, then five in the third...


Just out at HuffPo...

... kind of a companion piece to the one below. See it here.


Illinois Report: Gov. Quinn abolishes the death penalty

Today's guest post is from Jeanne Bishop, who was there as Gov. Quinn signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.

It started with a phone call from one of the Governor's legal staff on Tuesday. Could my sister Jennifer and I to come to a private meeting with the Governor at his office in the Capitol the next morning? We said yes immediately, not knowing exactly what that meeting would be. Governor Quinn had not yet announced whether he would sign the death penalty abolition bill or not, or whether he would commute the sentences of the 15 men on Illinois' death row.

We drove to Springfield in pouring rain early the next morning with hopeful hearts. The Capitol building was a hubub of visitors, lobbyists, legislators, staffers, pages in uniforms. At the Governor's office, one of the Governor's legal staff ushered us into a conference room where a small number of other invited guests were waiting: a few lawyers, some religious people, a law professor, the Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Cathy Crino, a member of our murder victims' family group whose sister Stephanie was killed in a horrific domestic violence incident.

Soon John Schomberg, the Governor's Acting General Counsel, entered the room and told us what we had prayed for: the Governor would sign the bill. He would do so in a private ceremony with only the bill's sponsors in the Illinois House and Senate, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon (daugher of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon) and a few other elected officials present. We would be taken to a room with the Governor and the press, where he would hold a press conference. We would then speak to the press afterwards. Another staffer told us the rest of the good news a short while later: the Governor would commute to life without parole all 15 death sentences of those currently on death row.

We were stunned with joy. Andrea Lyon, the law professor from DePaul nicknamed "Angel of Death Row" because no death case she had ever tried had resulted in a death sentence, spoke quietly about never again having to stand next to a client in court begging for his life. Bishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox church recalled being a spiritual advisor to the last person executed in the State of Illinois: Andrew Kokoraleis. The Bishop brought a letter written to him by Andrew expressing the hope that his execution would be Illinois' last. Now, God willing, that will be true. Tom Sullivan of Jenner and Block, a former U.S. Attorney and chair of a death penalty reform committee, talked about what he wanted to work on next: reform of the drug laws that are filling the nation's prisons.

Then came the moment: we were summoned into a room full of reporters and cameras, and Governor Quinn walked to a podium to announce the actions he had just taken. Hearing him say those words was breathtaking: you could actually hear the intake of breath from those unaware of his decision till that moment. He pointed to a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on the wall above him and talked about what Lincoln would have done. Quinn had a stack of books with him that he referred to as having informed his decision. Among them were the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's "The Gift of Peace" and the Bible. Quinn spoke about thought, reflection, listening to people from all sides of the debate. He spoke about his conscience. His demeanor was serious, sober; his tone was resolved.

I was standing in the hall afterward speaking to a reporter when a woman approached me. While I was still talking, she silently handed me something that filled my eyes with tears: it was one of the pens that Governor Quinn had used to sign the abolition bill and with its strokes, changed history.


Political Mayhem Thursday: Libya

It's becoming clear that Libya is sinking into an extended civil war, with the Qaddafi regime propped up by huge hoards of cash and the rest of the world standing on the sidelines.

What should we do?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


This is a special day

The Chicago Tribune is reporting something wonderful: Governor Quinn of Illinois will be signing the death penalty abolition bill today. Though this is something I have hoped for, I feared that the decision would go the other way.

It looks like it will be a small signing ceremony, but among those who will be there are my arch-nemeses/collaborators, the Bishop sisters. While I don't think I had much to do with this decision, I am very proud to work with them, and know for a fact that their past decade of hard work on this issue did most certainly did have something to do with Gov. Quinn's historic decision.

Things are changing. When Pat Quinn signs this bill, that means that in just the past few years New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois will all have switched from "death penalty" to "no death penalty" states. Something is happening.

Jeanne Bishop has promised an insider report tomorrow-- only on the Razor!

UPDATE: It's official-- and the Governor also commuted the sentences of all 15 people remaining on death row.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Not lookin' good...

When I was in Williamsburg last week, I stopped by my old fraternity house. Think maybe you could do a better job posting the letters, guys? Those weak chalk marks are the only sign of what house this is...


Should Pickles Go to Law School?

Monday, March 07, 2011


Richmond Recap

It was a remarkable weekend.

Sure, I met the Jelly Belly guy, but there was much more than that.

On Saturday night, I participated in our first of five death penalty events at Holy Comforter Church, which was a dual lecture where Jeanne Bishop and I talked about the death penalty. We had the discussion right in the sanctuary itself, which was a wonderful setting. I spoke first, then Jeanne, and then we took questions from the audience. It was a wonderful crowd, and we got some great questions, but I was totally unprepared for what happened.

In response to a question about the humanity of murderers (a fair question in this debate), Jeanne stepped up and did something extraordinary. In the twenty years since the murder of her pregnant sister, Nancy, and her brother-in-law, Richard, she had never publicly said the name of the murderer. This was intentional-- she wanted people not to remember the wrong-doer, but the innocent who died. However, on Saturday, she changed that and said his name, making him human in some way. It was a remarkable and undeserved act of grace, and one of the most dramatic and moving moments I have ever been present for.

On Sunday, we had two events. First, at the morning service, i was able to give the sermon (you can see the text here). I think it went well-- it felt like speaking to friends about friends, and built on the emotion of the evening before. The rest of the liturgy was a disaster for me, though; my advice if you are going to an Episcopal church is to bring along a reference librarian. They use four different hymnals, a Book of Common Prayer, a program, and some random free-floating materials people seemingly pulled from their pockets on the fly. I was constantly fumbling for the right book, only to locate it just as a hymn concluded.

The best part, though, was having four people there who have been real mentors in my life: Craig Anderson, Bill and Jane Smith, and IPLawGuy (who seemed to relish the book-fumbling part of my performance). Craig, whom I've known for 28 years, pulled the laboring oar in organizing all of this, and did a wonderful job. The Smiths were my neighbors as a child in Grosse Pointe (on the same street where Razorite Christine grew up). Among other indignities, I would often knock on their door, demand a book, and then sit on their porch and read it. Eventually, they directed me to their alma mater, William and Mary, where I met both Craig and Tom.

After the service there was an "adult forum" where Jeanne and I led a more informal discussion. As one might expect as the capstone of all that came before, it was quite emotional and wonderful. At least one person revealed that he had changed his mind about the death penalty, and the spirit of the moment was overwhelming.

Now, back in snowy Minnesota, I look forward to resuming my work at St. Thomas, and to the next step of this project-- the trial of Christ on April 15 in Minneapolis, and April 16 in Richmond.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Sunday Reflection: Today's Sermon

This is the first weekend of activities for me here at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Richmond. You can see the full schedule here. Today, I am gave the sermon (and IPLawGuy came to hear it!).

Here is the text of the sermon I gave this morning-- the Gospel lesson was the Transfiguration of Christ:

Transfiguration at the Mountaintop and the Kitchen Table

I’ll be honest—the story of the transfiguration is not the kind of Gospel story I usually relish. I favor those still, small, human moments where God speaks quietly. When the risen Christ appears, gives the Apostles some fishing tips, and then they cook breakfast on the shore—that I understand.

But this story of the Transfiguration… this is challenging. I’m not a theologian or a minister. I am one of you in the pews, who reads this and wonders what it means.

My first question when I read this story is “which character am I?” Like everyone else, when I hear a story, I am egotistical enough to put myself in it. Our temptation, as always, is to put ourselves in the place of Christ, but that isn’t right. I am not God, I am not Christ, I am part of the mob. Who I am, most likely, is Peter, saying the ham-handed thing… “Wow! It’s Elijah and Moses! I’ll build some tents!” Clearly, he was missing the point, the majesty of what was going on before him, and God himself cuts him off mid-sentence to announce that he is well-pleased with his True Son, Christ.

So, as Peter, humbled and watching this unfold, what am I to learn?

As I said, I am not a theologian, but I know some people who are. One of them is Randall O’Brien, who is now the President of Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. He transfigured something for me, re-ordered it, and it relates exactly to how I view this story.

He taught me that there is a beautiful symmetry to the Bible. Time and again, what we are taught unfolds at two levels. First, it teaches us how we are to think of God. Second, it shows us how to treat one another. This symmetry is reflected in the Ten Commandments, which deal with both. Even more elegant is the Two Great Commandments, one of which tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and might, and the other of which teaches us to love one another as ourselves.

What Randall transfigured for me was the cross. I have never been comfortable with the cross as the symbol of our faith—it is a method of execution, of pain and torture, soaked in blood. But it is more than that in its gorgeous simplicity. One axis goes up and down, representing God and his people. The other axis goes side to side, showing our relationship to one another, a conduit of love. These two lines come together to be nothing less than the Kingdom of God, the plainest of truths, and the wholeness of life.

So, if we view the transfiguration in those two ways, what does it teach us?

The first axis, our relationship with God, is plain. Jesus is our link to God, our revelation. More than that, I leave to the theologians.

It is the second axis that is more complex to me. What does the transfiguration say about how we treat one another?

Jesus said to see him when we look at others—that when we feed the hungry or visit those in prison, we are feeding or visiting him. And perhaps when we show the grace to see those around us as transformed, we are doing the same. Maybe what we are to see in this story is that sometimes we must allow those around us to change, even dramatically, as they are revealed as their true selves, whatever that may be.

I have seen two dramatic transfigurations of those around me, and I fear that I reacted as Peter did, rather than with grace or love.

The first time was several years ago. I was teaching at Baylor in Texas, and taught a very unusual course. Together with two Baptist preachers, I started a class in oral advocacy in which we taught law students to give strong closing arguments by using the techniques of great preachers.

My co-teachers were Randall O’Brien and Hulitt Gloer, who is the preaching professor at Truett Seminary. It was extraordinary to share a room with those two men, who taught me more than nearly anyone else.

Our class was held in the Spring Quarter. One November, Hulitt had a devastating stroke and nearly died. He was hospitalized for weeks and lost the ability to move and to speak. Only through painstaking physical therapy did he gain even rudimentary control of his body.

The time came to begin our class. Randall and I assumed that Hulitt would not be able to do it, but on that first day he arrived in my office, slowly, using a walker, his speech quiet and slurred. Randall and I exchanged a glance, but neither of us would stand in his way. We walked silently, glacially, down to the classroom. I held the door open. Hulitt turned to me and said “I’ll go first.”

In that bare raw moment before he began, we faced the quietest, stillest classroom in America. We all looked up at him. And that is when he was transfigured.

Once he began to speak, it was thrilling. His words were strong, his conviction manifest, his spare sentences roped together with sinew and wit. It was, to this day, the best classroom lecture I have ever heard.

On the way out Hulitt gathered the walker and waited a moment in the hall as students offered their congratulations and thanks. Like Peter, I asked the stupid question: “How did you do that?”

“Did you see her in the first row?” he asked. He was referring to Allison Dickson, a quadraplegic with muscular dystrophy who weighed maybe 60 pounds, yet eventually finished first in her class (and was quite a fine preacher herself). “I saw her, and I thought ‘God never lets me feel sorry for myself.”

He was transfigured. I have never seen him since as anything less than he was on that day.

It happened again a few months ago, in Chicago. I went to a conference on abolishing the death penalty, and something remarkable happened—during the conference, the Illinois legislature actually voted to abolish the death penalty. It’s pretty rare for the purpose of a conference to actually be accomplished during the week of the conference itself! There was an air of true joy.

After our talk, there was a party for a group of people who have lost a family member to murder. It was a wonderful time, way up high in the Hancock building in a beautiful apartment. My parents and sister were there to share it with me. Then, in a glimmer, there was a transfiguration. Jeanne Bishop gave a little talk about the organization, and then mentioned what the legislature had done. Then she said something remarkable and true—that those who had died were there celebrating, too, that the Holy Ghost had enabled her sister and all the parents and children and siblings who had been killed to be there in that room to celebrate life and love for their killers. There was that stillness again, of realization. It was jolting, as jolting as seeing Elijah and Moses before us, and hearing the very voice of God.

It means something, too, that Elijah and Moses were there on that mountaintop. In the transfigurations before our own eyes, God calls on people to be there to enable it, to announce it, and we must listen. God uses Craig Anderson (in my own life), uses Randall O’Brien, uses Hulitt Gloer, uses Jeanne Bishop, uses the person who is sitting next to you now. Turn to them—look at that person. That is Elijah, that is Moses, and we must see and acknowledge those personifications of transfiguration to one another; for God commands no less compassion, no less love, and no less of a miracle in the lives we live, and suffer, and celebrate, this day and every day.



Saturday, March 05, 2011


Virginia again

Friday, March 04, 2011


Haiku Friday: Those who have gone

Earlier this week I pulled off of my shelf a book that Scott Davis gave me many years ago: Sermons, by Peter J. Gomes.

The next day, I learned that he had died. Gomes was a lot of things-- a clear and insightful writer, a nearly lifelong Republican, a gay man, a Baptist minister, a black intellectual leader, and (most prominently) the minister at Harvard's Memorial Church, and a professor at Harvard's Divinity School. Ronald Reagan chose him to give the benediction at his inauguration.

I didn't know Peter Gomes, but I loved his work, which I sometimes agreed with, and always felt challenged by. Our world is not thick with men like him, and that is too bad. He died at 68, and I wish that there had been more years, because we needed him.

So, let's haiku about those who are gone. It can be a recent loss, or one further back, someone you knew or just knew of.

Here is mine:

Strong, insistent voice-
He said "Jesus unsettles"
He always was right.

Now it is your turn... don't worry too much about haiku conventions this week; just make it three lines and true.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Right to be Horrible

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a few important decisions. One of those, Pepper, fascinates me-- it encourages sentencing judges to consider post-conviction rehabilitation in determining a prison term.

However, no one else cares about that one. Instead, people are all agog over Snyder v. Phelps, in which the Supreme Court held that people who picketed a military funeral had a right to do so under the First Amendment, and are protected from tort liability. The picketers had displayed (according to the opinion) signs saying “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Pope in Hell,” “Priests Rape Boys,” “God Hates Fags,”
“You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.” You can see the full opinion here.

Most legal observers agree that the decision followed well-established precedents.

Regardless of what the law is, what do you think the law should be?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


My First Podcast!

On Monday, I had a wonderful discussion about creeds with Susan Stabile and a strikingly bright audience of UST folks and community members. For those of you who wonder what my colleagues at St. Thomas are like, give a listen-- Susan's clarity of thought and articulation of principle are both wonderful and not uncommon around here (her New York accent-- that's uncommon).

You can hear the discussion via podcast at this link. Just follow the link, then click on the little circle that says "pod" at the upper left.

Now I need to get ready for my presentations in Richmond later this week, including the sermon for Sunday. I got some great advice this evening from Razorite Scott Davis. It's always good to know the pros when you are faking it as an amateur.

As for the photo, which I took last year... can anyone guess the attenuated relationship it bears to this post?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Detroit, Again

After the Super Bowl, a number of people sent me this video:

I'm not quite sure what to do with it, how to feel. I really am from Detroit, always will be; that doesn't change. Not just from there, either-- after law school I went back, lived downtown, worked in the heart of it, thought I could make it better, then (after nine years) left again. It turned out that I was better at making a difference in Texas. I'm not sure why.

The pictures are all real-- I recognize those places. There was a swinging fist in the middle of downtown, there was a doorman by the St. Regis Hotel, I recognize the fleeting view from the Belle Isle bridge.

But there are lies in there, too. Detroit, the city itself, has done a lousy job at "luxury," and probably always will. Why should it? Luxury has never been a value of that place, and that is probably a good thing.

Another lie-- that the city has been "to hell and back." It's not back. The schools are destroyed. The tax base is gone. There is no real plan to rebuild the economy, other than vague mentions of farming. The neighborhoods are gone, just gone, in some parts of the city. Now, those blocks are fields with wildflowers in the summer. It's a cruel, muscular, empty beauty.

I am part of the diaspora, spread far like wind-blown seeds who have landed in small clumps of wistful memory. Our parents still live there, some of them, and we go to visit and see what else is changed or gone. There is a little guilt, too, of not being there still-- as if we weren't tough enough to live the death walk, too. Being from Detroit is like loving someone who breaks your heart a thousand times in the exact same way, tiny bleeding cuts and long open wounds.

Oh, and another lie... the 200 will not be made in the City of Detroit (though Chrysler has an assembly plant there, on Jefferson, and an engine plant on Mack). No, the 200 will be made in Sterling Heights, out in Macomb County.

I like the music of that ad. Something about it walks like I do sometimes. But, in the end, it leaves me vaguely sad, knowing full well the vitality in the ruins, which are ruins nonetheless.

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