Sunday, January 31, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Forgiveness

For whatever reason, someone on Friday turned the Don Henley song "Heart of the Matter" into a haiku (which had nothing to do with Henry Ford's signature). It started me thinking.

Forgiveness can be the most difficult of Christian tasks. It is heart-wrenching to give up a grievance or hurt, like giving up a part of ourselves, and the larger the hurt the more difficult the task.

My friend and colleague Randall O'Brien wrote a book about forgiveness, and I learned a lot from him. He was of the view that true forgiveness does not wait until the person changes their ways-- that is, we cannot condition it on the person treating us better. How hard is that? Randall would point out time and again that Christ forgave BEFORE the person changed, or even took responsibility for their acts, and that he did this right down to his literal last words on the cross ("forgive them, for they know not what they do").

Like many Christian imperatives, forgiveness often runs against what our sense of reason or justice might otherwise tell us is right.

Among my many imperfections, I am often challenged with showing forgiveness. And you?

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Businesses I am not happy with

1) American Airlines

Right now I am sitting at DFW's gate B39 waiting for a flight to Waco. The flight is supposed to leave in three minutes, but we don't have a plane to board. This has been the deal with service to Waco for some time now, especially since they switched from jets to America's Worst Plane, The "Super"-ATR. Recently, fewer people seem to be flying out of Waco, and right now that looks like a smart choice-- it seems that every trip I take, at least one of the flights involving Waco is late or canceled, and there seems to be no sign from the airline that they are going to do anything to address the reliability problem.

At some point, this is bad for the city of Waco. Reliable air service matters, and right now we have a problem.

2) Restaurant 1424 in Waco, Texas

A few months ago, I went with two others to 1424 for a little celebration dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine and an appetizer, and began our celebration. The good spirits (so to speak) lasted only until the waiter opened the bottle of wine. It was immediately clear that there was something wrong. The wine was a dark caramel color, and it smelled bad. I tasted it, and told the waiter it had turned. He seemed surprised, and left for a minute to talk to the owner and then came back and told me "it should be good." He then poured us some, but it was just undrinkable, so I had to push him to bring us another bottle, which he did reluctantly. The new bottle also was brackish (it was the same label and vintage). Again, he seemed very reluctant to take it back despite how obvious the problem was, and the owner seemed grumpy about it. Finally, we got a different kind of wine.

If you own a restaurant and serve wine, you should train your servers, or at least yourself, to recognize wine that has turned. And you absolutely should not fight with customers who have a problem with a white wine so bad that it has turned murky.

Future celebrations will not be held at 1424.

So.... what business are you unhappy with?


Er, Pretty much...

I received this from one of my students studying for the sentencing final:

Let me get this straight. Booker held that to properly use the federal sentencing guidelines you pick your favorite president (1-43) to get you to the appropiate spot on the offense axis. Then you pick your favorite Brooklyn/L.A. Dodger world series win (1-6) to get you to the correct spot on the criminal history axis. The advisory/ mandatory stuff in the opinion was about the US Supreme Court advising the sentencing commission to add some more numbers on the offense axis bc the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution makes it mandatory that George W. Bush (43rd president) cannot be president forever.

Sadly close to the truth.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Haiku Friday: Henry Ford's Signature

Today we continue our adventure through the Mayborn Museum's curiosity cabinets, featuring the finds of Dr. Blaine McCormick from deep within those vaults.

Here we have Henry Ford's signature. What can we say about that? Well, here is what Dr. McCormick had to say:

The five dollar day
A car anyone could buy
Modernity comes

and mine:

The hand that wrote this
Shook Edison's, I would think
Small world of brilliance.

And now yours:

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Political Mayhem Thursday II: The State of the Union

From what I saw, I thought that Obama's State of the Union Address was quite impressive. Presidents often rise to their best for this event, and I think he did just that.

Amendment: I just heard more of it on the radio, and heard some commentary. I had not seen the Supreme Court exchange. It's not something I would have done. I'm less impressed now.

And you?


Political Mayhem Thursday: The cost of safe districts

Last Saturday, I fell into conversation with Ash Cruseturner, one of the more astute observers of politics I have known. He observed that the gerrymandering of Congressional districts into a series of "safe" districts for each party has real negative consequences. It means that few members of Congress face real threat when they are up for re-election, and thus are not motivated to act in a way that is responsive to the people in their district. It is undeniable that incumbency is a very strong force in the House, which is odd-- it is the Senate where we are supposed to find the people who don't have to worry about frequent re-election.

Perhaps more that anything, the contrast to this is shown in my own Congressman, Democrat Chet Edwards, who seems to be very active and responsive to his fairly conservative district.

Like almost everyone else, I am disappointed with this Congress. Might safe districts have something to do with it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The end of my month without drinking

[click on the photo to enlarge it]

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experiment of going for a month without drinking. If you haven't done this yet, I urge you to read the comments to that post. They were some of the most surprising and moving things I have ever seen on this blog (much more so than any of my own writing). For example, consider this from Ginger Hunter, in discussing alcoholics in her own life:

As with most things, I use a swimming analogy to understand. An addict is like a drowing person. You may or may not be able to help save them, no matter how strong a swimmer you are. If they absolutely do not want help, you only risk your own life in trying.

There must arise in that person a desire, for more, more normality, more health, or maybe for just less harm. All I know to do for a drowing person is be there, ready to assist, and keep fighting for that to happen, while keeping myself afloat and clear of harm. The risk to this is that ultimately you will most likely watch the person you love die.

Or this anonymous comment:
Thank you for your candor, Prof. It is huge to me, because my own mother was an alcoholic. When she came to pick me up at school, she thought no one noticed her drinking.... I know it hurt her when I told people "I don't have a Mom," but that is what I wanted to be true. I just hope that your acquaintance does not have kids.

There was also this note of hope from my old friend Kevin Doyle:
Rather than add to the stories recounted here, I would just like to say that my professional career (primarily in addiction counseling for the past 25 years now), while sometimes frustrating, has been tremendously rewarding because people can and do recover. The hope that exists among recovering people, in groups like Alcoholics Anonmyous, is palpable, real, and inspirational. I "feel the pain" from the other posters, but encourage them not to give up, to keep trying, to consider Al-Anon or ACOA groups, to consider an intervention, but above all to keep at it.

Today marks the successful end of my month without drinking. The results were good: I didn't miss it much, and the routines of my life did not change a bit. My family and friends were understanding and supportive (obviously, I was pretty public about it).

As the stream flows into the river, the river flows to the sea; too many just let the water carry them until they are far from all that they loved and desired and in a place, adrift, they would never have chosen. Every once in a while, we all meet these people, older people, who have children off someplace, unseen, the ties broken, who have a transitory life that seems infused with a bitterness and sadness that envelopes everything. We back away from them, sometimes quickly, because it is not good or rewarding to be near them, but they hardly notice; they are still in the river, floating away, down to the ocean where that one drop will disappear amid all the others, too many to count.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


... and in Connecticut, I am known as "Peter"...

According to this. Thank you, kind of, to Brennan for flagging this.


Amending the Constitution

Last week, in Citizen's United v. FEC, the Supreme Court overturned that part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign funding legislation that limited the spending of corporations and labor unions in the period right before an election. This ruling effectively frees corporation and unions to flood the airwaves with political advertising.

As a legal matter, now that I have read the opinion, I think the Court may have been right in its interpretation of what free speech means.

As a practical matter, it is a disaster. Corporate money already skews too many elections, and it furthers the distance between members of Congress and actual human constituents.

If I could amend the Constitution myself, it probably would be to allow limits on campaign spending, including that by wealthy candidates who spend their own money.

If you could amend any one part of the Constitution, what would you do?

Monday, January 25, 2010


Well, THAT explains why (ironically enough) Pennington has been missing sentencing class...

(Actually, we talked before the trial, and I knew the very good reason he would be out...)

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The Pledge Drive

Tomorrow morning from 6-9 a.m., I will be on KWBU-FM (103.3) with Brodie Bashaw for their pledge drive. In an act of incredible generosity, Prof. Larry Bates will be matching pledges people make during that period (probably up to some limit). Still, I worry that at 6 a.m. all I will be able to say is things like "Grrbff. Flurg."

Thus, I am putting out a call for better lines I can use. Any ideas?


Sunday Reflection: The Bad Pastor

In Waco this week, we saw the conviction of Matt Baker, a Baptist minister and Baylor graduate who was found by the jury to have killed his wife. The primary evidence against him came from a woman with whom he was having an affair.

This is not an isolated incident, as Baylor Social School of Social Work Dean Diana Garland noted in a wonderful piece in today's Waco Tribune-Herald.

How do incidents like this impact the faith of congregants? Does it have no effect, undermine our trust in the ministry, or (more seriously) undermine our faith in God?

Saturday, January 23, 2010


How Being 46 made Conan O'Brien's last show all make sense...

In case you missed it, Conan O'Brien had his "Tonight Show" appearance last night. At the end of the show, Will Ferrell appeared (along with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Ben Harper, and Beck) and played Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was the perfect way to close out.

Conan O'Brien was born two months after me in 1963, so one effect of seeing his last show was to thing "Gah! He's retiring already! What have I done with my life?" Another was to wonder if the meaning of Free Bird is special for people my age or if it is more universal.

On the off chance that my students don't understand why it was the perfect choice, I'll take you way, way back to 1980. Conan and I were both juniors in high school. The last song at a dance was usually Free Bird. It had that great and frustrating slow-fast-slow pacing that gave fumbling teens a chance to either get close to or away from a member of the opposite sex, and you could sing along to it. If the DJ or band didn't play Free Bird, we all would yell for it. Eventually, this warped into the practice (still popular in some places) of yelling "Free Bird!" at the end of any concert.

Conan O'Brien is the son of a partner at Ropes and Gray in Boston and a medical professor at Harvard, and himself is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard. He's no dummy. I admire his ability to find a way to end his show in the middle of a painful situation by gently deflecting it all into a well of warm memories and humor. Sometimes the mark of intelligence is exactly that: Saying something unexpectedly gracious, or deeper or funnier than our masters deserve. In the end, that ending made NBC look more foolish than any harsh yet true words Conan could have shared.

Life does not change that much. Slow-fast-slow; and then it is over and you walk out into the night air with expectation and regret, surrounded by others, and wonder what happens next, no one quite knowing because we are never quite old enough, ever.


A better obituary

A better and more complete obituary of Dan Freed (compared to that on the Razor) appeared in yesterday's New York Times. It reports on a life that was truly remarkable (even among my remarkable group of mentors, for whom I hope not to write any more eulogies for a while). Here is an excerpt:

Professor Freed pioneered the study of [sentencing] when he brought Alabama state judges, a largely conservative lot, to Yale Law School to discuss with students what the sentences should be in hypothetical cases.

For decades, judges had unquestioned power to impose sentences using their own discretion with little fear of appeal. Professor Freed argued for more regularity in sentencing. It was unfair, he asserted, that the same crime committed under similar circumstances could result in widely different sentences, depending on the luck of the draw of which judges presided over the cases.

His writings influenced the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which called for a federal commission to establish sentencing guidelines. But he soon became a critic of how the remedy was used.

In practice, Professor Freed said, the guidelines imposed a mechanistic rigidity on sentencing by obliging judges to adhere to a complicated set of charts and tables in determining a sentence. Deviating from the guidelines exposed a judge to reversal by a higher court.

The new process, he asserted, merely shifted discretion from judges to others in the system, notably prosecutors, who could control sentencing by choosing which criminal charges to bring. A prosecutor’s discretion in selecting charges became the primary factor in sentencing, he argued, because once a conviction was obtained, judges felt largely bound by the guidelines.

Professor Freed was a founder of The Federal Sentencing Reporter, an influential publication that he used to chronicle sentencing developments and to argue, usually gently, that the system had gone awry. He urged judges to resist the rigid guidelines and to write opinions explicating their reasons for doing so.

Nancy Gertner, a federal trial judge in Boston and an authority on federal sentencing, said Professor Freed had urged judges to reason among themselves and to produce a body of law that would transform the guidelines into recommendations instead of mandates.

In 2005, a divided United States Supreme Court in Booker v. United States ruled for the first time that the guidelines were not mandatory, bringing the system more in line with what Professor Freed had envisioned.

Daniel Josef Freed was born in New York City and attended Yale College and Yale Law School. After serving in the Navy, he worked in the Justice Department and became director of the criminal justice division under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Haiku Friday: Pig Made of Confederate Money

Today we continue our series of haikus inspired by the curiosities found at Baylor's Mayborn Museum, joined by our good friend, Dr. Blaine McCormick. I woke up yesterday just in time to hear one of Blaine's pieces on Benjamin Franklin on our local public radio station, KWBU. For what it is worth, I will be spending this Monday 6-9 am at KWBU, helping them on-air with the pledge drive.

This week's curiosity is a pig made out of confederate money.

Here is Professor McCormick's haiku:

It's tragic to have
Two grand in your piggy bank
That you can't withdraw

And mine:

Hey, Confederates--
What was your money made of?
Gooey pinkish ick?

Now it is your turn!

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Political Mayhem Thursday: Scott Brown and the Democratic Majority

On Tuesday, Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat which had been held for 135 years by Ted Kennedy. What does it mean? Here are my thoughts:

1) It means that the health care bill has not been well handled. This is the second consecutive Democratic administration which has been dragged down by its own health care proposals.

2) It means that the Democrats risk losing a lot of seats in the November elections.

3) It means that there will be a more divided government, which is usually a good thing. I have been really disappointed with what the Democrats have done with their majorities. For example, they never fixed the 100:1 sentencing disparity in mandatory minimum statutes between powder and crack cocaine, despite having announced this as a priority.

What do you think it means?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Matt Baker found guilty...

Late this evening.

Punishment phase begins tomorrow.


Showing of American Violet in Waco

For those of you who have not yet seen it (or those who have), the Waco Community Race Relations Coalition will be showing American Violet at the Texas Life Annex building, 1000 Washington St. in Waco, on Tuesday, Feb. 16, from 5:30-8:30, including discussion with myself and some others. Dinner will be served! If you would like to come, please call Jo Welter at 836-4599 and make a reservation. (You can check out some reviews here)

If you haven't seen the movie, I think you might like it. Among the stories revealed in the film is the real-life story of one of my first students, David Moore, who comes off as the real hero that he was. To be honest, he's one of the few people I know who is the subject of a heroic big-budget film, and it is a darn good one.

Also entertaining is the portrayal of me as a bolo-tie-wearing, cotton-eyed-joe-dancing Texas guy. At least it is better than the portrayal of me that one time on Star Trek...


Blog Origins

A long time ago, back in 2006, I started this blog with a specific purpose. That purpose was to show my students more of myself, and have broader conversations than we could have in class. I realize, after writing about Prof. Freed on Monday, that this project was an extension of how he had treated me and his other students. Thus, I suppose, this blog is also a part of his legacy.

Here is what I had to say about that purpose back in September, 2006:

I'm a teacher. It's a great job, the best job I can imagine. I'm lucky enough to work at a school where the students are very hard-working, diligent, passionate, and interesting. My colleagues, likewise, are extremely hard-working and passionate. I worry, though, about the interaction between these two groups. I fear the students think (with some reason) that we profs present ourselves as Gods of the Law who periodically descend from the 3d floor to scatter doctrine around like bread crumbs and then retreat to our aerie.

I figure it wouldn't hurt to share some recipes now and then to break down that stereotype.

There are limits, of course. I will not refer to students by name unless I am handing out a compliment. Also, I probably can't comment on any controversies involving the administration of the law school. Finally, there are some details of my life I won't divulge here for the simple reason that because of my work as a prosecutor, there are people getting out of prison who might hold a grudge, and I need to protect others from that threat. I'm fine if they come after me.... he he he. I've got Vic the Demon Pimp on my side.

At a school like Baylor, which tends to be intense, community is an important thing. I want this to be a good thing for that community as a whole, because that place, those people, are at the center of the vocation I have chosen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010



I think we know what Political Mayhem Thursday will be about this week! Get your keyboards warmed up now...


On Writing

If someone I don't know asks me what I do, I always respond that I am a teacher. It's true, too-- I view the most important part of my job to be teaching, and that encompasses much of my daily activity (including much of my writing).

Often, though, I feel like an actual writer, and I love that feeling. It is different than being a teacher-- the opposite in some ways. For example, teaching is necessarily a social skill, done in community with others. Writing, on the other hand, is a solitary pursuit.

Still, for me, writing can get a little rowdy. At times I am quiet and contemplative, but sometimes I pace around, listen to music, sing, and talk it out-- it almost like I have to wrestle, physically, with the ideas to make them come out.

So, if you came by my office last night and saw that... sorry, man.

Monday, January 18, 2010


The Death of my Mentor, Prof. Daniel Freed

When I entered Yale Law School I felt (like most of the other students) like the admission department's mistake.

When I graduated, I felt like I had to, and could, change the world.

The man most responsible for that change was Prof. Dan Freed, who died yesterday in New York. Prof. Freed taught me sentencing, and more importantly, who I wanted to be-- and who I wanted to be was him. He was a wonderful teacher and writer who played a major role in both the development of the federal sentencing guidelines and the later critiques of those same guidelines. His sentencing class often met on Saturdays beginning at 8 am, and I never missed a minute. He arranged for us to work with a group of Alabama judges, and the experience defined my law school experience. Later, it was in part his influence that convince my next major mentor, Judge Jan DuBois, to hire me as a clerk. I owe much of my career to him.

On his tribute page, I wrote the following inadequate comment:

Prof. Freed was the warm, kind, brilliant, engaged teacher who probably never realized the profound effect he had on his students. He engaged us on many levels– challenging our beliefs and ideas at the same time that he challenged us personally and supported us in our endeavors. He is the reason, the primary reason, that I am a law teacher (I wanted to be like him), that I am passionate about sentencing (he was right to care so much), and that I try to be fully human with my students (he was that, as well).

There are bonds of love that tie the world together– romantic love, agape love, love within faith– but the bond between a teacher and student is nothing less than any of those. It is one we carry on forever, that survives even death. If there is immortality on this world, it is that, and there is no one, no one, who has achieved it more stunningly than Daniel Freed. Yes, it is his spirit that carried forward in Blakely, in Booker, in Kimbrough, in Spears, but more importantly in what we all teach, which is a lengthening of his own mind and passion across space and time to our own students, who will go on to accomplish things we cannot imagine.

I, too, am a Freedian forever.

A day or two after the Spears decision came down last year from the U.S. Supreme Court, I received an email that I printed out and folded and kept in my pocket for weeks, rereading it probably a hundred times because it made me feel so good. It was from Dan Freed:


Fantastic achievement!

You and your students deserve highest praise for the wisdom, persistence and courage with which you pursued this important sentencing issue over many years. Judge DuBois must be proud and all smiles at your victory.

You can also imagine how delighted I am to watch how far you've climbed since those early years when we had the privilege of working together along with those wonderful classmates and our memorable Alabama judges.

Dan Freed was proud of me. That was as good as it gets. And note that he, more than anyone, understood that what happened was not mine, it was also my students' victory because I was a teacher and that collaboration was teaching. Note, too, that he also described his teaching me as the two of us "working together"-- a way of thinking about teaching that I learned from him.

Even now, writing this, the tear in my eye is not just in sadness because he is gone, but in joy because that happened before he was gone. It is perhaps the greatest testament to him as a teacher that I carried his email, folded and weathered, on my hip for all those days.

I will miss him, and so will the world.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Spirits

The most moving part of my week was reading the comments to my Wednesday post on alcohol. If you have not read through the comments (all 45 of them!) I encourage you to do so. I so much appreciate everyone who took the time to write, and especially those who revealed hard and sad experiences.

When I was in college and forming my ideas about both faith and drinking, one of my primary mentors was Craig Anderson, who was my boss when I was a Head Resident in the dorms. Craig had a calm, holistic, and wise approach to many things, and I probably learned more from him than I did in any of my classes. Some of the conversations I had with him I still remember nearly verbatim. For example, we once were discussing people who drink too much, and he noted that sometimes it seemed like they were people who were looking for something in their life-- something they couldn't quite define.

I asked Craig if he was talking about faith.

"Well," he said, "there probably is a reason they call liquor 'spirits.'"

I have pondered that ever since. I do think there is a relationship in some people (not all) between faith and substance abuse. Let me clarify: I don't mean that substance abuse is directly caused by a lack of faith. After all, I accept that alcoholism, for example, is a disease that some people have to deal with and others do not, a disease that exists independent of faith. Further, I have known many people (including the acquaintance I mentioned) who are faithful churchgoing alcoholics, and even Southern Baptists. Church does not immunize anyone (including ministers and priests) from alcoholism.

That said, though, I think that for some people who are prone to alcoholism, faith is a way of staving it off. For some people, perhaps, it fills up the part of the soul that one might be tempted to fill up with wine.

Either way, we desire the Spirit.

But what of the spiritual crisis of those who love someone who is an alcoholic, perhaps even a parent? Ginger Hunter, in her comment, perfectly expressed the pain of being in that position:

Life with an alcoholic is both predictable and completely unknown. You can predict the patterns of abuse, gleeful productivity and joy, violence, sadness, regret, repentance, abstinence, and a sad, scratched record. But you cannot predict the phone calls in the middle of the night, the hospital visits, wondering just how bad it will be this time, wondering when it will be the last time. How bad they look, poisoning themselves, how much you miss them because 99% of the time they are just not there. The anger.

What should a Christian do when dealing with an alcoholic they love? Separate? Engage and pay the emotional price? Some combination of the two?

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Minneapolis in January!

Yesterday I was in Minneapolis, giving a talk about some of my work to the faculty at St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis. The lecture was a variation of the crack/powder presentation I have previously given to student groups at Harvard Law School and at Baylor.

The principle difference this time was my audience. St. Thomas has an especially distinguished faculty for such a young school, full of nationally-known experts in various fields (as well as a large number of Harvard Law grads... hmmm). Despite these daunting credentials, the faculty seemed very welcoming and dedicated to the vocation of teaching and writing. I was especially impressed by some of their more innovative programs-- for example, Hank Shea was a white-collar prosecuting legend when I was at DOJ. He now teaches at St. Thomas where, among other things, sometimes gives joint lectures with some of the people he prosecuted.

Many schools have programs like this, where scholars from other institutions are invited in to discuss their work to the faculty, usually at lunch. It is good for the faculty to hear what is going on other places and great for the invitee (me), who gets a group of sharp minds to bounce ideas off of. Of course, it also makes a case for Baylor's quality on a national stage (if I do a good job). I loved it.

I was invited by my friend Joel Nichols, who is a great teacher and scholar. It is always fun to see one of my teacher friends interact with students; the warmth and importance of the relationship becomes clear and immediate.

And for the Spanish Medievalist: No, I did not have time to go ice fishing.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Hairball Haiku Friday!

Today is the first Haiku Friday focused on the treasures found in the Mayborn Museum's curiosity cabinets. This important program was initiated by Dr. Blaine McCormick, a noted author, and poet. Each week, he and I will offer haikus on an object from the curiosity cabinets, and then invite your own haikus.

This week: Hairballs from the stomachs of buffalo and cows.

Here is Dr. McCormick's:

Three hair concretions
Trichobezoar masterworks
Bovine lingual art

and mine:

Vaguely familiar...
Oh, yes! McHairball Snack Wrap
McDonald's drive-thru!

Now, it is your turn...

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Political Mayhem Thursday: What to do for Haiti

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, was devastated by an earthquake Tuesday. What should the United States government do? There are at least three options beyond doing nothing:

1) Send immediate food and medical aid, but nothing more,
2) Send food and medicine, and also send in material and people to erect emergency shelter and temporary institutions (hospitals and police stations), or
3) Actually devote resources to rebuilding the country in a more permanent way.

Which would be best?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010



When I was a freshman in college, I got some great advice from a senior, IPLawGuy. He told me never to have more than three drinks, and to alternate those drinks with something else. Fortunately, he was such a convincing mentor that I treated that advice like the word of God, and I am glad-- It was the best advice I ever got. I am a social drinker (usually just wine at dinner), and don't remember ever having been drunk.

Still, I do drink, and everyone who does has a potential problem with abuse. People who teach for a living, like me, are especially prone to drinking problems. The only way to be sure that drinking is not having a negative affect on your life is to not drink at all.

It has gone very well-- I don't really notice it much, though there are times when I am getting ready for dinner that it does seem there is something missing. I have substituted Vernor's ginger ale (a Detroit favorite) for my usual glass of wine, and that has been a nice change.

Sadly, though, even as I have somewhat reassured myself, I know that there is always the potential to have drinking become abusive, in any of us who choose to drink at all. I don't know of anything that has caused more pain in the lives of those around me. I know old men who still remember their parents drunk and embarrassing; I know little children who keep their parents' secrets as it eats them away from the inside; I know people of great accomplishment who live lives full of despair and mourning. As I get older, the more clearly I see the dark shroud of alcoholism casting shadows in the shape of everyday tragedies.

I am going to ask my readers a favor. In the comments section, please share a story of how a friend, acquaintance, or family member has harmed themselves or others through drinking. It is fine to post anonymously. I think these stories, together with the fact that anyone who drinks has a potential drinking problem, can help people keep things in perspective.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Five worst clothing choices for a law student

5. Biker shorts
4. Backwards cap
3. Loincloth made of duct tape
2. Spurs
1. Biker shorts


The best way to travel

Today I overheard two kids talking about the best way to travel. Their consensus was that it would be to fly on brooms.

I disagree. That looks incredibly uncomfortable, and I would imagine that if you gained any speed at all there would be a lot of falling off and mess.

As many of you know, I have long been a proponent of the flying car, though even that excellent idea has its naysayers.

Mean Automakers Dash Nation's Hope For Flying Cars

So, if anything was possible, what would be the best way to get from here to there?

Monday, January 11, 2010


New Haiku Challenges

I love haiku Friday-- perhaps more than my readers do. To keep things fresh, I am joining forces with ace Business Prof, prolific author, and published poet Blaine McCormick for the next several weeks.

Dr. McCormick recently discovered a fascinating part of Baylor University's Mayborn Museum. They apparently keep an amazing number of bizarre antiquities in a series of cabinets and drawers-- old-fashioned "cabinets of curiosity." Each week, we will feature a photo of one of these oddities, and then invite haiku on the subject (first offering our own).

As an example, we see in the photo above a monkey holding dynamite. Why does the monkey have dynamite? In what imaginable situation would it makes sense to give a monkey some dynamite? Whose idea was it to put said monkey in a museum frequented by children? We, frankly, have no idea. Thus, we will haiku our speculations.

Here is Dr. McCormick's:

Me now Big Monkey
for find better way to go
banana harvest

And mine:

Cold-hearted zoo-bombing chimp-
It's Scurrilous George!

Please offer your own, or any opinions about this idea. Also, kudos to the Mayborn Museum for keeping these things available for this important academic use by veteran professors.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Sunday Reflection: The nature of evil

My entire life, I have been fascinated by the nature of evil. Maybe "evil" is not the right word, exactly-- I suppose I have been fascinated by people and cultures that do things that are so wrong and bad that we all would seemingly condemn them, yet they continue on that path. It is a different thing, too, than criminal law. For example, the most deceitful and immoral person I have ever known has never (to my knowledge) spent a day in jail.

After college, I indulged myself by visiting two places that Americans viewed as containing an obvious evil-- the Soviet Union and South Africa. The Soviets were our enemies, of course (this was 1985), and the apartheid system in South Africa was broadly (and properly) condemned as institutionalized racism.

Of the two, I found the Soviet Union more understandable. Even though I was constantly watched by a guide, people did tell me their complaints about the government and society, and the problems were pretty obvious. It was a society that was, truly, lacking in certain types of freedom, and the people knew it. It was an egalitarian society, though, except for the party member elites, and this seemed acceptable and even welcome-- there was a stability to it. I left with an even firmer condemnation of the Soviet political system, but a much better understanding and appreciation of the people who lived there.

South Africa was a completely different place. Because I was a white American, I was completely privileged. I could not walk along a rural road without getting a ride in a fancy car, people constantly bought me food and drinks, and everything seemed very cheap. Yet, it was a horrible place to be. There was a paranoia that enveloped everything, and the sense that it all was wrong (built on the backs of oppressed people) seemed only slightly below the surface at any given time. Every white person I met, almost upon impact, felt compelled to explain to me why the system there was good, good for everyone. I could not wait to leave.

There was evil in both places. In the Soviet Union, it seemed to be in the government, and in South Africa in the favored class of people. However, (and this is huge), both of these evils went away with the acquiescence of those who gained the most from that evil-- two rare and wonderful historic moments.

What does our faith compel us to do when we encounter evil?

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Well that was... unusual...

As many of you already know, I am not actually an alum of Baylor University. However, I have devoted my teaching career to the school, and happen to think it is an excellent institution of higher learning. Not having arrived here until mid-life, however, I am always on the lookout for sources of information about Baylor and especially its history.

Perhaps the strangest and most disturbing volume I have yet procured is a poorly-bound book entitled "A Sentimental and Highly Inaccurate History of Baylor University," which is available from for about ten bucks.

This history describes a vibrant and violent Baylor which has endured many more challenges than one might imagine. For example, consider this section, which describes the University's role in a crucial presidential election:

Though the Baylor Administration was not to blame, save through inaction, in 1928 Baylor and Waco tipped the Presidential election in the wrong direction. Al Smith’s own miscalculations were his downfall, I suppose, and we knew it at the time. Smith came to Waco and spoke at Homberg House on the edge of campus, orating from the front porch of the mansion of his chief benefactor in Texas. Smith was not an ideal candidate for Waco, as he was from New York City, opposed prohibition and was a practicing Catholic.

Sadly, a foul-up in telegraphy resulted in a cable meant to say, “Try acting Baptist non-drinker Southerner Stop,” coming through as “Stop acting Baptist non-drinker Southerner, Try.” As a result, Smith blew into town in a large black Packard with an accompanying posse of Pennsylvania beer handlers, Catholic Priests in full regalia, and Northern civil rights leaders. During his address, he included in his presentation the chugging of four Yuengling lagers and a full infant baptism in which he assisted as Godfather. Further, he sent the civil rights leaders into the audience to seize any firearms and concluded with a somewhat inebriated version of “The Whiffenpoof Song,” performed while urinating on the steps of the house.

In contrast, the protestant, pro-prohibition Republican, Hoover, arrived the next day and simply sat, corpulent and motionless, at the corner of 5th and James as well-wishers filed by and admired him like a piece of art or prize hog. As history well recalls, Hoover’s Republican slate won Texas for the first time since 1880, and thus the election.

Friday, January 08, 2010


The Game

There really is only one thing to haiku about today-- the BCS championship. For those of you who missed it, Alabama beat Texas 37-21.

Here is mine:

Nick Saban's pink shirt
Dyed and doused with Gatorade;
Longhorns wet with tears.

Now it is your turn...

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Political Mayhem Thursday: Schools or Prisons?

Lame-duck California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger is supporting a Constitutional amendment in that state which would require that the state spend more money every year on universities than it does on prisons.

I think it is an intriguing idea.

First, though, we have to acknowledge that incarcerating a lot of people is probably going to reduce crime, even if we just incarcerate people at random-- there simply will be fewer people on the street to commit crimes. Incarcerating a large part of the population does reduce crime.

However, incarcerating a lot of people is an expensive way to achieve what may be a minor result. The better we target the people who really create crime-- the key men-- the more efficient the system and the fewer people we need to incarcerate to obtain a given result. Of course, for this to happen, we must acknowledge one over-riding goal in criminal justice: To incapacitate the key men. It would be unusual to find that kind of political discipline.

Still, I would love it if we could try, and as a result give more money to universities than we do to prisons.

What do you think?


What I'm up to...

It's going to be a busy, busy month. In addition to class and the usual peripherals, I will be grinding away on the following (all of which is pro bono work), with the help of some of my students:

1) In the case of United States v. Dillon before the Supreme Court, I'm writing an amicus brief for the Washington Legal Foundation, a well-respected and innovative conservative/libertarian group. The case involves an important but complex sentencing issue. After the sentencing commission changed the guidelines for crack, those sentenced under the previous rule were able to be resentenced. However, Sentencing Commission rules prevent the judge from considering anything other than the change in the guidelines. We are arguing that this violates the principle of individualized consideration, which has long roots in American law and is embedded in the statutes which currently guide sentencing in federal courts. I will be working on this one with Prof. Rory Ryan of Baylor and his sister Elizabeth.

2) In another Supreme Court case, United States v. Burgess, I am writing an amicus brief for the National Association of Federal Defenders. This case involves the application of the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury where a case involves an increased sentence due to the involvement of a weapon. In this one, I am going to focus on the fact that mandatory minimums are subject to the same flaw as the sentencing guidelines (as exposed in Blakely and Booker), in that they violate the Sixth Amendment where they are imposed based on facts not found by a jury. One wonderful challenge here is that my clients are themselves some of the best appellate attorneys in the country.

3) I am also joining the board of Friends of Justice. My first meeting is Saturday, and I'm looking forward to it.

Interestingly, I was approached by the Washington Legal Foundation and the Friends of Justice on the same day-- and they represent very different viewpoints. I must be doing something right!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A worthwhile non-sequitor

A few days ago, the following comment was published here in response to my post about vandalizing the wrong house. While I'm not sure it had much to do with the post, it does have a lot to do with law school, so I am giving it space here. Thank you, Richard Howell!

Professor Osler,

A frequent topic on your blog is the cost of law school. Many of your readers (including Dallas Prosecutor, Lane, and my wife Julie) take positions in the public sector after leaving Baylor Law School. In many cases, these former BLS students are still burdened by high student loan debt.

Part of the solution for people who choose to serve may be found in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. Not actually passed until 2008 and not effective until July 2009, the Act may lower or eliminate student loan debt for people who take certain jobs after law school.

College and law school grads who take full time jobs with the government, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or a private "public service organization" (i.e. an org. funded in part by a governmental unit that is not a political party, labor union, or religious org.) are eligible. After 10 years of "eligible employment," all federal Stafford & GradPlus loans are forgiven. The program also reduces payments on those loans. More information is available at The site has an awesome video with a gremlin that would be just right for the Razor.

I just thought I'd pass this along.


Monday, January 04, 2010


Heroes and mentors

Last night, I had dinner with my favorite professor from college (along with his wife, parents and some friends). 27 years ago, I took every class I could from him. I loved what he taught, but I also loved how much he loved it-- his passion for his subject made me care about it, too.

When it was time to become a teacher myself, I remembered how he taught. I knew that part of it would always be maintaining my own excitement about the subject, so that I would have a chance perhaps of drawing people in the way that he had done to me. Once in a while I do get it right, and there is nothing more satisfying.

When we shine, it is always reflected light.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Season of Contentment

I love the few Sundays after Christmas Day-- the period in which Christmas is still celebrated in the church after the birth of Christ itself is commemorated. There is a sense of quiet contentment, which was deeply present at my own church this morning. We remembered the coming of the Wise Men, which was a confirmation of the miracle of Christmas.

It is interesting to compare the emotional seasons of Christmas with those of Easter:


1) Anticipation (Advent)
2) Joy (the birth of Christ)
3) Contentment (the remainder of the Christmas season).


1) Anticipation (Lent)
2) Despair (Good Friday)
3) Joy (Easter Sunday)

Christianity is an emotional faith, and the seasons of our emotions are driven by empathy. Empathy for Christ at times, or for others in the narrative, or empathy for those around us as we traverse the season. To everything there is a season, and this is a season of contentment, an emotion that runs very deep. Contentment is not a sudden realization; rather, it is an abiding knowledge that things will be ok, that there is balance in the world, that we are loved.

I hope that this spirit of the season is with you today, too.

Saturday, January 02, 2010


Avatar! The best movie ever about blue people!

Last night I went to the cinema to watch the blockbuster 3-D hit Avatar. A few reflections:

1) It is the best movie I have ever seen about blue people.

2) The special effects are amazing. There is one scene where this giant combination plane-helicopter thingee is crashing into this big tree where the blue people live, and the guy next to me looked like he was going to barf.

3) If I had one complaint, it would be about how the blue people came off. They wore these ridiculous hats and lived in silly places, and spent a lot of time hugging and singing. That's not what aliens are supposed to be like!

Friday, January 01, 2010


January 1 Haiku Friday

[click on the photo to enlarge it]

2009 was a pretty good year for me. I had several dreams come true, in fact-- winning a case in the Supreme Court, testifying in Congress, publishing a book: These were all things I had always wanted to do, and this was the year for it. There was a quieter dream come true, too. When I was deciding what law school to go to, I was actually living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from Harvard. The day before I had to put down a deposit, I walked through the Harvard Law campus and came across a bulletin board covered with notices for upcoming lectures on all kinds of fascinating topics-- democracy in Africa, Constitutional development in Eastern Europe, street gangs and law enforcement, women in litigation-- and was overwhelmed with the enormity of the law. But then it struck me that each of these speakers was an expert in one thing, not all of it, that they had a passion for something that became woven into their life story. I wanted to be like that. I decided to go to Yale Law, and someday come back to Harvard and give one of those lectures.

This year, I did. And it rocked.

Of course, I messed up some things, too. I gave some lectures where I lost track of my own point, and wrote a few test questions that didn't make as much sense as I hoped. There were moments when I was not as kind or patient as I should have been. Plus, of course, I TP'd the wrong house.

That's all in the past now. 2010 is going to hold its own challenges, and I look forward to them. I do make resolutions, or at least one, every year. I try to base them on a value I have not lived out enough.

So, here is my resolution for 2010: I am going to be more patient. More patient with those around me, more patient with myself, and more patient with the wheels of change. Good will come, but sometimes the right moment has to come first. My colleague Rory Ryan was a running back in college, and one thing running backs know is that just running fast is a recipe for disaster, because you will run right into the backs of your linemen. First, you have to wait a bit for the blockers to open a hole, and then you move. It is a skill I need to learn, both in what I do and how I deal with people.

Here it is in haiku form:

It is a virtue
To wait and then run sometimes
Truth is always there.

Do you have a resolution for this year?

[note: I added the haiku after Christine reminded me it was haiku Friday!]

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