Sunday, March 31, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Freedom and Faith

On Friday, we had a remarkable Law Journal Symposium at St. Thomas, and so many of my favorite people were there. For the last decade, I have worked hard on clemency, and having so many of my fellow travelers in one place was a dream come true! It was quite a week (I also found out our students chose me as "Professor of the Year," which means I get the happy task of hooding the graduates at commencement), but the symposium and those who were there really requires some additional discussion.

One of those fellow travelers joined us in freedom only recently. For years, I knew about Alice Marie Johnson's case from Amy Povah (and eventually promoted it on CNN). She was freed on June 6, 2018, and immediately began working to free those she left behind. While in prison she became an ordained minister, and shared her talents with First Covenant here in Minneapolis not long after her release. And, of course, she was the best part of the last State of the Union address and recently spoke at the United Nations. It's remarkable the way she is able to articulate from her own experience what is wrong with our criminal justice system; her perspective is important, authentic, and immediate. The discussion of this subject is moving beyond the opinions of academics and politicians, and that is all to the good.

There is a danger that people like Ms. Johnson will become symbols. Yes, symbols are important, but they also are reduced to two dimensions. Worse, once a person is reduced to mere symbolism, that person loses control over what they represent; they are formed by the hands that employ the symbol.

Ms. Johnson's preaching-- and in the most powerful way, her public appearances are preaching-- immunizes her from becoming a two-dimensional symbol. She claims her own identity with authority, and does not hide her faith. Her keynote speech at St. Thomas was a masterpiece: moving and convincing and motivating.

In the national debate over clemency reform, Ms. Johnson's voice is especially important because she properly and explicitly frames it as a Christian witness, as a follower of the Christ who took his charge from Isaiah to "free the prisoners." Nearly all of those who oppose clemency identify as Christian, and we need to engage them within our common principles as much as we can. Mercy is at the center of the faith. That must mean something in real life.

As we move forward towards real clemency reform, Alice Marie Johnson will be an important voice, not merely an important symbol. And that may make all the difference.

Saturday, March 30, 2019


A Gathering

Yesterday we had an amazing symposium at St. Thomas on clemency. The speakers, pictured above, included Shon Hopwood, Mark Holden, Alice Marie Johnson, Jason Hernandez, Erin Collins, Nkechi Taifa, Amy Povah, and Rudy Martinez. Such differences between these people, and such unity on what is important.

It was a pretty incredible day.  I will write more about it tomorrow.

Friday, March 29, 2019


Haiku Friday: Can you tell it is Spring?

Razorites live all over, and the signs of Spring are different from place to place. Let's haiku about that today. Here, I will go first:

The snow recedes now
Leaving black ridgelines behind
The green comes later.

Now it is your turn! Use the 5/7/5 syllable formula, and have some fun!

Thursday, March 28, 2019


PMT: The long, long road

One of the things I found captivating in the TV shows House of Cards and West Wing was the scenes where the candidates are out in little towns in Iowa, eating at the Pizza Ranch and trying to get good crowds to show up.

We are to that season now, where exactly that is happening, and it must be fascinating to be in Des Moines (a place that might be less than fascinating at other times). I think what I like best about it is that the candidates constantly throw out ideas and come out with proposals on issues-- it is a real and genuine and usually well-founded debate about important things.

What do you think they should be talking about?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Defined by cars

Looking through photos the other day, I was struck by how cars appear in so many of the photos, even though they are rarely the focus of my photography. It's just that they are almost always there, it seems. The one exception is the pictures from Osler Island, a place cars can't get to and inhabit.

I love cars-- I'm from Detroit, after all. But it is worth reflecting on how much these mobility devices shape our communities. Physically, it is inescapable: the sheer amount of concrete in a place like Waco, all designed to allow for plenty of parking, is the defining characteristic of the landscape. An alien visiting from outer space might, at first glance, think that cars are the sentient inhabitants of the planet. And yes, I do know that there is a series of animated movies about that.

Freeways, of course, take out entire neighborhoods when they are built, but that is just a fraction of the impact of roads, parking lots, and everything else that cars demand. Is it worth it?

The next generation seems to not be so sure. I'm often surprised at the number of young people I know who don't have a driver's license and don't care about it. They have found other methods of mobility. In New York, it looks like congestion pricing will be the latest attempt to limit traffic in Manhattan, and it might work. In Europe, the central parts of many cities are largely free of traffic, something that is always a surprise to me. 

Are we moving to a different landscape?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


The Barr Report on the Mueller Report

Megan Willome wrote a nice little haiku about the Mueller report yesterday:

Dear Mr. Mueller,
You could've summarized the
whole in a haiku.

She's right, too. I've got some thoughts on the Mueller Report (in addition to what I have said here and here):

1)  Regarding a conspiracy with Russians to influence the election, it seems clear that Mueller found insufficient evidence to recommend charges or impeachment. That's not totally surprising. From what we already knew, it seems that events like the Trump Tower meeting the Russians approached people in the Trump organization, talked about some stuff, but the Trump people never agreed to participate in the activity in any active way-- and that agreement is the essence of conspiracy. Sure, it turns out that the Russians went and did stuff to help Trump on their own, but that does not make it a conspiracy.

2) On obstruction, there is the legitimate question of "obstructing what?" I may disagree with the Barr analysis on this, but I can't say until and if we get to see the full Mueller report.

3) It also wasn't surprising that Mueller did not make a recommendation. He was in the role of investigator and the AG was the prosecutor. It is the prosecutor who decides whether to decline a case or advance it.

4) Finally, Democrats probably should be glad for this outcome. A recommendation of impeachment, followed by a House vote that might lead to a trial in the Senate that would almost certainly lead to acquittal was not going to be good for their prospects, or for the nation. These political issues need to be determined at the ballot box-- and will be!

Monday, March 25, 2019


On Spring Cleaning

Well, it seems that Robert Mueller got his spring cleaning done... but he didn't submit a haiku. The medievalist did, though:

Pear tree is blooming,
A fresh coat of paint goes on,
Clutter, trash, is gone.

And so did my dad:

All of our stuff seems
comfortable where it is 
untouched and unused.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Imperfect

One of my oldest friends (53 years or so) is Jeffery Plansker, and I had a great time visiting with him out in Pasadena a few days ago. He has saved some remarkable artifacts of our young lives, and one of them was the image above: an ad for my dad from the 1960's or 70's.

My favorite part of it is the reference to him being "hard-driving" that comes with an asterisk, which in turn offers the disclaimer: "Some days more, some days less." 

Well, yeah, of course! We are all imperfect. I have some good classes, and some where I walk out thinking of things I should have done differently. But in the end I get things out there, an dhopefully I get better the next time. I'll never be perfect, but I hope to get better.

For reasons I will fully explain later, this will be a very important week. I would like to do my tasks perfectly, but I won't. I have an important goal, but I might not attain it. But I will try my best.

Jesus was very clear about something: we are to judge ourselves, not others. Yet, I know so many people who do the opposite. Part of it might be the fear of revealing themselves to be imperfect. And the first step to following Jesus might be to allow him to be the perfect one.

Saturday, March 23, 2019



Here are the upsets from the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, from biggest to littlest (based on seeding):

UC-Irvine (a 13 seed) beat Kansas State (a 4 seed)
Oregon (12) beat Wisconsin (5)
Liberty (12) beat Mississippi State (5)
Murray State (12) beat Marquette (5)
Ohio State (11) beat Iowa State (6)
Iowa (10) beat Cincinnati (7)
Minnesota (10) beat Louisville (7)
Florida (10) beat Nevada (7)
Oklahoma (9) beat Ole Miss (8)
Washington (9) beat Utah State (8)
UCF (9) beat VCU (8)
Baylor (9) beat Syracuse (8)

Nine seeds often beat 8s, but this year was a wipeout-- 4 for 4. For some reason, the 12 seeds often beat 5s, and that was true this year as 12s went 3 for 4. 10s also went 3 for 4 against 7s. 

But it wasn't all excitement and tumult-- no 3 seed or higher lost.

Friday, March 22, 2019


Haiku Friday: Spring Cleaning

It is spring cleaning time! I look at the picture above, and I realize what I am standing in front of, blocking from the camera's view: a fantastic tangle of fishing rods and reels, piled against the wall and weaving in and out of one another.

We all have something we need to clean out. Let's haiku about that this time. Here, I will go first:

Boat house disaster
Mass of filament.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula, and have some fun!

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: The contenders

Who should the Democrats choose to run against Donald Trump?

Most of the Senate, several governors, and a bunch of once and current members of the House are already running, along with a Mayor and some misc.  Here is the current list of people who are officially running, according to the Chicago Tribune:

 Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke
former Gov. John Hickenlooper, 
Gov. Jay Inslee, 
Sen. Bernie Sanders, 
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 
Sen. Cory Booker, 
Sen. Kamala Harris
ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, 
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 
former Rep. John Delaney
authorMarianne Williamson
and former tech executive Andrew Yang.

We will probably soon add Joe Biden to that list.

My purpose is not to comment on the "horse race," which is pretty meaningless right now. Instead, I would like to list the top six candidates by experience and achievement in governance (which are two different things):


Yes-- all Senators. However, Sanders, Klobuchar, Harris and Booker all have experience outside of Congress. And the Senate is a particularly good platform from which to learn the breadth and depth of American politics. 

I'm inclined to pick my favorites from this list. Is this fair?

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


The Tournament Begins!

Tomorrow is a great day-- wall-to-wall college basketball as the first long weekend of the NCAA tournament kicks off. It's these early days when upsets happen, overdogs stick it to the little guy, thrillers go into overtime, and no one can always predict which games will be which.

Here are some of the games I am most looking forwards to in the first round:

-- Nevada (a 7 seed) vs. Florida (10) This is one of several upside-down games this year, where a traditional power is seeded below a mid-major. Nevada was ranked most of the year, while Florida had to pull off some wins at the end of the season to get to a 10th seed.

-- Wofford (7) vs. Seton Hall (10) Another upside-down match, and this one features a Wofford team that seems to have something going (that something being shooting well). 

-- Tennessee (2) vs. Colgate (15) I'm told that Colgate made the transition to four-year school from being a 2-year dental training institute only in 2014. It's remarkable they have gotten to this level so fast! Tennessee was ranked #1 early in the year. We can all only hope that no one gets hurt.

-- LSU (3) vs. Yale (14)  LSU has beaten some great teams this year, and Yale is, well, not a basketball powerhouse. Nonetheless, the Ivy champ has won in the first round 4 of the last 10 years, and Yale does have an NBA prospect on the roster this year.

What are you looking forwards to?


Oh my....

I'm not sure what to make of this photo (from the meeting in Vietnam). Maybe you all have possible captions?

Monday, March 18, 2019


Two takes on Spring Break

I love that both of the takes I got on spring break from known Razorites involved adult spring break-- those of us who work at schools.

First, it appears that the Spanish Medievalist is back here in Minnesota:

Going home again,
Family is important,
Soft snow falling now.

Meanwhile, Jill Scoggins has been robbed!

Lucky faculty,
students: Spring Breakers all, while
staff toil away. WAH!

Sunday, March 17, 2019


Sunday Reflection: On Manafort and Justice

It's hard not to want to see those who do bad things be punished in a way that hurts a lot. That urge towards retribution seems to be an easy emotional response. Unfortunately, it creates a lot of harm when we punish people more than we should. It also runs counter to what Jesus taught (as do most other religious traditions, and many ethical thinkers outside fo those traditions).

People like Paul Manafort really bug me. A lot.

But I am not one of the people who think his sentence was too short. Instead, I think a lot of other people's sentences are too long. If you want to know more of my thoughts on this, I have a piece in the Waco paper today that lays it out. You can read that here-- and I hope that you will.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Bernie Sanders in 1981

This was nearly four decades ago!

Friday, March 15, 2019


Haiku Friday: Spring Break!

I've been enjoying my spring break quite a bit. IPLawGuy and I have been skiing in Sun Valley, and it has been a blast. It's a beautiful place, and apparently a secret given how uncrowded it is.

Let's haiku about spring break this week! Here, I will go first:

Up on the big snow
You can see sky forever
And then there is lunch.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 formula, and have some fun!

Thursday, March 14, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: Manafort and the History of Clemency...

Yesterday I took a break between runs with IPLawGuy to talk to Audie Cornish at NPR's "All Things Considered" about clemency and Paul Manafort. You can hear the interview here.

I also interviewed IPLawGuy:

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


They Shall Not Grow Old

Last night, IPLawGuy and I hobbled over to the Sun Valley Opera House to watch "They Shall Not Grow Old," with some commentary by filmmaker Peter Jackson. The movie is simple but profound: a restoration of World War One film with oral history commentary by veterans of the events depicted. In all, it is an anti-war movie, focused on a war that grew out of a minor conflict and caused unmitigated tragedies and led to revolutions in both Russia and Germany.

When I was a kid, there was a World War One veteran living across the street from us. Mr. Kengel was shell-shocked; the sound of our tennis balls crashing against the garage door resulted in understandable protests from him.

But like most Americans, I did not think much about World War One. We are much more knowledgable, it seems, about the Second World War, which somehow seems more modern and immediate.

And yet there is a lot to learn in the modern day from the epic rolling tragedy that some called The War to End All Wars. It was fueled by interlocking alliances and empire; nations with no real beef with one another suddenly were in a shockingly bloody war. Technological advances turned it into a bloodbath that few foresaw when it began. It was the last war of medieval Europe and the first of the modern age.

The stench of death was all over it. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019



I'm not crazy about my birthday-- for one thing, it rolls around at about the most depressing time of the year (February 21). 

One thing that brightens it up every year, though, is the card I get from my talented sister, Kathy Osler. She draws something original every time, and I love the surprise of it. She is... kind of like that generally.

As some of you know, I am a little obsessed with the Roman Goddess of clemency, Clementia. Kathy took a turn with that and imagined Clementia as a little friendlier and teddy-bear-ish. Thus, what I got this year was Clementedia. 

And I love it. It sits in the middle of my mantle. I am happy to take questions when people visit. And I glance that way if I need a lift of spirits. 

Now that's a gift.

Monday, March 11, 2019


Gavin is right, again...

Christine had a good answer for what she would do with $206 million (cure cancer), but there was a great haiku from Gavin, too:

I’d buy wild land
Where game and fowl still live free
And just leave it be.

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Sunday Reflection: On Break

It's spring break time here in Minnesota-- which seems a little odd, since we are getting a half-foot of snow this weekend, piling up on top of all the snow that we already have.

So, I'll go skiing.  IPLawGuy and I do every year for spring break.

I think having breaks from the usual is part of how we are supposed to work. We are programmed for cycles: to celebrate holidays at the same time every year, to recognize the change of the seasons, and to sometimes put down our tools. I have the luxury of a job--teaching--that has a precise rhythm. We have new students every fall, and we graduate others in the late spring.  There is a poignancy to it, those starts and ends, the people who are at the center of your work coming and going.

When IPLG and I are skiing, we have different styles. I just ski, eat, and watch basketball on TV. He is usually working, even on the ski lift. I'm kind of surprised he hasn't found a way to take calls as we go down the slopes. I suppose it's because his work is different-- most adults do not get spring break, after all.

Perhaps he gets his cyclical reality in other ways. He's Episcopalian, and they take the liturgical year very seriously: the liturgies are in a cycle, of course, and the whole church changes with each season: Lent has a whole decorative and costuming theme, which abruptly changes at the onset of Easter. I love that.

How do you get yours?

Saturday, March 09, 2019


One great scene

Fabulous old cars? Check. Chicago like it was when I lived there two summers in law school: messy, gritty, and fascinating? Check. John Lee Hooker singing "Boom Boom," followed by a shoving match? Check. Aretha Frankin at her peak, dissing John Belushi? Check. 

Friday, March 08, 2019


Haiku: What would you do with a lot of money?

Yesterday I was looking for a video where I ramble on about sentencing issues and instead discovered a web site that supposedly reveals "How rich is Mark Osler?" The answer, apparently, is pretty darn loaded-- it says my net work is $206 million dollars... Which is off by nearly $206 million. The same site also claims that my main source of income is "Celebrities," that I was born on New Year's Day, and that I have expertise in "make-up" and "special effects." That picture is definitely me, though.

So, this week let's all imagine we were that fictional Mark Osler with that $206 million. What would you do with it? And we can do it in haiku! Here, I will go first:

Two hundred and six
Million? I would buy a new coat
A haircut and tie.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula and have some fun!

Thursday, March 07, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Incarceration of Women

Yesterday at St. Thomas, ACS hosted Andrea James, the founder and leader of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. I've known and admired Andrea for a while, and it was wonderful to get her in front of our students to talk about her work. I just wish that we had more time for it!  People like Andrea offer a perspective that I cannot, and it is essential to get those other viewpoints into the flow of ideas and conversation in our classrooms and hallways.

Andrea is a forerunner for five others who will speaking at St. Thomas at a symposium on March 29, who were also formerly incarcerated: Alice Johnson, Amy Povah, Shon Hopwood, Jason Hernandez, and Rudy Martinez. Other speakers include Mark Holden (General Counsel of Koch Industries), Nkechi Taifa, and Roy Austin (who worked on clemency in the Obama administration). 

 The moving force for reform in criminal law has come largely from those who were incarcerated.  That they have found a voice and forums to be heard is in part a testament to the Obama administration, which encouraged that dialogue and sought them out both publicly and behind the scenes. The Trump administration has done the same, to some extent. 

I know that in many areas of reform, people despair of the political climate. In my field, though, there is reason for hope.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019


Minnesota Nice

I'm not a native Minnesotan, but this is my favorite place that I have ever lived. And I am saying that as four feet of snow create a landscape most reminiscent of the ice planet Hoth.

One thing people sometimes wonder about is the almost preternatural niceness of people here. I found people in Texas to be friendly but often not nice. Here they may not be as friendly, but they are more often nice. And I don't mean in a passive-aggressive way, but a genuine way.

In a recent article about Amy Klobuchar in the Atlantic, Caitlyn Flanagan described it very well in the course of revisiting Klobuchar's now-famous dialogue with Brett Kavanaugh:

Klobuchar didn’t take the occasion to grandstand or to showcase her own moral superiority by giving one of the vile little sermons that have become a hallmark of our time. She didn’t even bring up Spartacus. She simply gave the only decent response to a sincere apology: She accepted it. She was no pushover—her questioning about blackouts rang the bell upon which the whole matter turned—but neither did she allow his bad behavior to inspire any of her own.
When people speak derisively about “Minnesota nice,” it’s because they don’t understand the people and the place. It’s not niceness; it’s a form of radical politeness combined with an unshakeable and largely unexamined sense of obligation to one another. Klobuchar knew her family would survive the divorce when she trudged home from a friend’s house the morning after getting the bad news and saw her mother up and dressed and shoveling the driveway. In Minnesota, a shoveled driveway is both a winter necessity and an unmistakable sign to the community: We are okay in this house. If she had been too broken to do it, someone on that block would have surely done it for her. That, too, would have been an unmistakable sign: We won’t let you go under.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


Flag hugging

Donald Trump is taking some flack for his flag-hugging at the CPAC conference last weekend (which was part of an epic 2+ hour speech he gave there). I'm not sure where I stand on flag-hugging. It should be noted that Trump has a bit of a history of, um, intimacy with the flag. Here he was last summer:

Is it... patriotic? Romantic? Just kind of weird? I do have to say that it is sort of compelling, in a can't-look-away sort of way.

It's one of those things that just challenges expectations. Of the many things we think of a flag doing, being caressed isn't one of them. It's kind of like Bible-dancing:

Monday, March 04, 2019


Cozy, with whiskey

I loved what people wrote about being cozy! Like Christine's suggestion:

The rain falls, steady
My bones are cold; outside, brrr...
Hot tea with whiskey.

And the Medievalist seems to have some experience, too:

Old college sweatshirt,
Slippers and wool socks, blue jeans,
Comfy recliner.

And Megan Willome seems to have it down:

warm White Magic tea
dogs asleep, as usual,
a real paperback

Sunday, March 03, 2019


Sunday Reflection: On being a blade of grass

There is one crisis of the spirit that many people I know go through. It is this: Does my life matter? It is an existential crisis in four words.

There are few stock answers to that.

One is that "God loves you," and that this means that your love matters-- you are loved. I think that is true, but I understand how for many people it doesn't offer much solace. "After all," they say, "If God loves everyone and everything, that still means I don't matter much." And on top of that, if they have been hurt and are in pain, they don't feel very loved by an omniscient, omnipresent God that apparently chose not to help them.

Another answer, for people inside and outside of a belief in God, is that meaning comes from helping other people. I think that is true, too. But, again, I can see how that can seem insufficient to those who are the ones needing help, or whose efforts to help others have been unrewarding.

My own answer to that question does not deny either of those truths. But I do have a different way of thinking about it.

When I lived in Texas, I found myself at least once a year driving down I-35 in Kansas, and often spent the night in a little town called Cottonwood Falls. It is in the middle of an area called the Flint Hills, covered with tallgrass prairie.

I found that prairie stunningly beautiful. It is almost treeless. Instead, there are endless fields of grass on the rolling hills. The prairie exists by a cycle: the grass grows up and then burns off, to start the next generation.  Sometimes, I saw those fires, which were a part of the whole.

What is it to be one of those blades of grass, a tiny part of that larger picture, one in billions of nearly identical blades of grass? Is any one blade insignificant?

No. Of course not. Each blade of grass, every one, is part of that remarkable creation of God, a brushstroke of the divine. What glory there is to be that blade of grass, thrusting up to the sun, living, dying, perfectly in tune with the creation of something extraordinary beyond our imaginations?

It isn't bad, to be a blade of grass in that glorious field, or a single thread in a beautiful tapestry, or a drop of water in a big, blue ocean. "But," some might say, "without that blade of grass or that thread or that drop of water, the field and the tapestry and the ocean would be almost the same."

True. But... almost? Almost is not the same as whole. If there is a God, it is not an "almost" God who creates "almost" everything with care. And this, this is not an "almost" world.

It is good to be.

Saturday, March 02, 2019


Something I would like you to read

I've written a lot of academic articles over the years-- over 30 now-- and of all the ones I have written without a co-author, I think this is the most important. It sums up what I think is important about clemency, and how it should continue to be important.  It is titled "Clemency as the Soul of the Constitution," and you can read it here. It appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Law and Politics.

If nothing else, it is unique in that it cites to four plays by Shakespeare, the Joker's role in The Dark Knight, Gerald Ford's football career, Henry VIII, and Harry Potter. Let me know what you think!

Friday, March 01, 2019


Haiku Friday: Cozy

There is feet and feet of snow here. It is a good time to be cozy, with family or tea or a good book. Let's haiku about that this week. Here, I will go first:

There is a nice couch
By the fireplace; and a book.
Not a bad evening.

 Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula and have some fun!

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