Friday, May 31, 2019


Haiku Friday: Ice cream

It's that time of year.

I love ice cream. I have to pretend not to like it, actually, or I would eat too much! Like most people, I have very clearly defined preferences, too. I love soft serve. I love jimmies on top. I am capable of thoroughly enjoying a sundae. Mint chocolate chip was my favorite as a kid, but I have evolved since then...

So let's haiku about ice cream this week! Here, I will go first:

At Baskin-Robbins
I waited patiently for
Two cold scoops of joy.

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

Thursday, May 30, 2019


Book Reviews: Alice Johnson & Rachel Barkow

Recently, I read two books at the same time and after awhile I saw something wonderful: that they fit together in a striking way. Both were written by people I know, and both books are compelling, important, and timely. Alice Marie Johnson's "After Life: My Journey From Incarceration to Freedom" is an engrossing story that will convince you that our criminal justice system has gone terribly awry as it reveals how one woman became enmeshed in--and survived--a grossly disproportionate sentence. Rachel Elise Barkow's "Prisoners of Politics," in turn, offers a comprehensive description of how that system became so dysfunctional and (perhaps more importantly) describes a path to fixing the problem.

After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom
Alice Marie Johnson 

Like a lot of people, I think Alice Marie Johnson is one of the most important people in my field right now. This book is one of the reasons why. In clear strokes, she paints a picture of her own life and the criminal justice system that took away too much of her freedom with too little justification. It should be read not just by everyone who cares about reform, but by people who don't-- because after they read this book, they will care.

One thing that makes this a great memoir is its shattering honesty. Johnson tells you exactly what her mistakes were, and how she ended up being sentenced to life without parole for a first-time narcotics conviction. That honesty extends, too, to the hardships and issues in prison itself. That honesty makes her ultimate victory that much sweeter; you trust her goodness because you know so much of the entire picture. Without realizing it, you come to trust her authenticity and good heart. Johnson is a woman suffused with perseverance; while incarcerated she was a creator who became an ordained minister, wrote and staged plays, and advocated for her fellow prisoners. Her appeals, motions, and clemency petitions were shot down again and again, and yet she always believed she would be released. When she describes that moment, you will cheer along with the fellow inmates who line the road as she leaves the compound after receiving clemency from Donald Trump.

Johnson is a crucial figure right now; as I have written before, she is more than a symbol-- she is a voice that must be heard.

Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration
Rachel Elise Barkow 

I know a lot of smart people. Rachel Barkow may be the smartest. That comes out in this book, which is thorough, well-sourced and accessible-- a difficult feat for an academic (or anyone, really). I hope that those who want to be president read it, because it provides a specific and achievable road map to addressing the problems raised both here and in Alice Johnson's book.

One thing that struck me as I read these books together was that both Johnson and Barkow seem animated by a core morality; they have deeply-rooted senses of justice that add fire to their words. This is not amoral analysis. Rather, it is a thoroughly principled critique of what is wrong. 

Her argument is based on a (correct) historical analysis, which starts with the rise in crime in the United States between 1970 and 1980. Here is the turn from that moment in time to her critique of our current realities, found on p. 105:

With public concerns about order at their peak, elected officials rushed to fill breach: "Crime policy, once the domain of criminal justice professionals, became dominated by electoral politics." Thus the shift to mass incarceration is directly linked to the shift from leaving judgments to professionals to allowing the masses to set policies directly.

In other words, once politics took over, Pandora's box was opened and out flooded outlandish bail amounts, mandatory minimum sentencing, irrational sentencing guidelines, and to-the-max prosecutors. Re-election, too often, rode on the backs of the incarcerated.

Barkow is a problem-solver, and her book is concrete in offering solutions. Focusing, in turn, on prosecutors, expert agencies, and courts, she lays out new initiatives that are attainable and worthwhile. For example, she describes reasonable checks on prosecutorial discretion, an electrified pool that is the cause of much of our current bout of over-incarceration. 

Like Johnson's, Barkow's book is perfectly timed. I hope that those who are seeking to be our leaders read both, so they can know the truth and know what to do about it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Yale Law '90: Kathleen Clark

As I promised last week, I'm going to take every Wednesday to explore the career paths of some of my law school classmates, a particularly interesting bunch.

For my first profile, I've selected Kathleen Clark, a law professor and expert on government, ethics, and national security. When we were in law school, Kathleen was kind to me when I was clueless, something I have always been grateful for. She was one of the sharpest people in the group, and when she raised her hand you knew something compelling and true was about to be said.  She was a double Yalie-- undergrad and law school-- so she knew her way around, too. I've been lucky enough to see her occasionally since school, too, most recently when she was kind enough to come hear Nkechi Taifa and I talk about reparations with Dr. Joanne Braxton earlier this month.

After law school, Kathleen clerked for Judge Harold Greene, and then served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As a professor, she got tenure at Washington University in St. Louis, and has also taught at Cornell, Michigan, Utrecht University, and the National University of Vietnam.

One of Kathleen's great gifts is to take complicated ethical issues and explain them with both clarity and moral purpose. That's one reason that her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications, challenging the powerful with principle. More than once, I've been watching television and Kathleen has appeared, making sense with simple and irrefutable points. I stifle the urge to point and say "I know her!" excitedly when this happens at the gym. She is actually able to explain things like the Emoluments Clause, and has been a leading voice on that and other issues. Here is a sample of her making sense of our current world:

In a nation with a critical need for experts in government ethics, we all are lucky to have Kathleen amongst us.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Dusk in Texas

This time, right now, the end of May, is when I miss Texas the most. It's been in the 90's for a while now in Waco, most years, but the pool just opened; the kids got out of school. The start of summer really means something when you live in Central Texas. The crickets are loud at night, the heat can take your breath away when you go outside, and everything is, in a word, languid. I love that word, the way it is used in the mesmerizing Steely Dan song, "Deacon Blues," which has a 70's vibe in precisely the way that Waco does, singing about the "languid and bittersweet."

There is something about dusk this time of year, there. People on a porch, or at the pool, or out on a ranch, just being, as the heat breaks a little bit, the light hitting just right.

You go to the pool. Someone orders margaritas, and they talk about hunting javelina, that you have to deal with that thick hide and use a knife sometimes, out in some sweltering patch of South Texas. A few more guys come over and tell stories. Knowing nothing, I listen and nod, and wave over another margarita as the kids splash around and whatever song of the summer emerges starts to worm its way into the brain. I didn't always have to be a law professor there, and that was good. I liked that, at dusk in the heat in the summer. I was guy number 5 on a deck chair as no one quite was thinking about dinner yet. Kids are starting to ask their moms, gathered over the way, about that.

Someone heard that some schoolteachers had opened up a barbecue joint out in the country someplace, just a pit and some picnic tables, so you'd go out there. And there it was, a bunch of cars pulled over by the road, parked up on the grass, and the smell of the sweetest smoke in the history of the world, filtered up through brisket and sauce and God knows what else, but it is a scent I can't get out of my head even now. So you go up and pay five bucks to a guy who last week was giving a final in history, and then you go over to the pit and they put down three things on a plate: a slab of brisket, a slop of beans and two slices of white bread taken straight out of a bag of Mrs. Baird's. There is another guy, who still has finals to grade from his math students, and he is sitting in front of a cooler of beer. You give him two bucks, and you get a can of Miller Lite and take it to the picnic table and smell the smoke and hear the stories and drink a few of the beers and the night slides away with every sense fulfilled, on a wooden bench under a tree forty yards from a Farm-to-Market road. Languid.

And the thing about it all is that the moments, these start of summer moments, aren't about anything else. It's not leading to anything else, there is no future or past in it. It's just... right then. And that, my friends, that right then, is pretty damn good. 

It took me a while to get Texas; how people loved it so much. But those languid days, that start of the summer... I got it. And today I miss it.

Monday, May 27, 2019


Much interest in lunch!

Wow! Lot's of great lunch-themed haikus last week.

First we had this from the Spanish Medievalist:

Menu del día 
Gazpacho, filete, y
Arroz con leche.

Today's menu
Gazpacho filleted with
Real Human milk]

Tim brought the Michigan angle:

Oh, Buddys pizza
You have moved to Grand Rapids
What took you so long?

And Susan Stabile offered something close to my own heart:

On white bread (of course)
peanut butter and jelly
each day in grade school.
Christine offered up a common conundrum:

Chicken salad, chips...
An unremarkable meal
Need inspiration.

Amy gave us a great picture:

Italian Alps, home
of distant family, June:
Long tables loaded,

wild boar stew, fresh -- Love -- 
polenta gorgonzola -- 
Surprise -- tomatoes,

greens -- Warmth -- pasta, new
peas, new family, fizzy
water, wine and wine -- 

Flowers -- Laughter --
chocolate, pears, parmesan.
Cannot recreate . . .

And Gavin, as always, gave us something worthy of thought:

I eat at my desk
Bland food from a cardboard box
Blank stare, my mind drifts

To another lunch
Meat, cheese, bread, wine, and my love
In the Tuscan sun. 

We laughed and dined there
Time was no concern of ours
Just in the moment

Sunday, May 26, 2019


Sunday Reflection: The Empty Churches

I'm finding it hard not to notice empty or abandoned churches wherever I go. Sometimes they have been converted into apartments. Recently, in DC, I had dinner with Joanne Braxton and some others in a restaurant/hotel that was built out of a former church. More often, they are just boarded up.

It's especially striking in rural areas, where the old church is just falling apart under the elements.

In many European cities, you can find a church every few blocks. If you are there on a Sunday, it is easy to find a seat as they are almost empty during services.

Christianity is fading as a moral force in this world.

There have, of course, been a number of self-inflicted wounds that have led to this fate. Almost any terrible act that you can think of-- supporting the Nazis, massive sexual abuse of children, taking the money of the impoverished--- has been committed by Christian churches and their authorities.

Some will blame a shift in culture, of course: that new media and entertainment have distracted people from the life of the church. Others will point to an affluence that makes God irrelevant, noting that Christianity is thriving, not dying, in less affluent countries.

Probably all of this is right to some degree.

If we accept the truth that Christianity is fading from view, or at least prominence, what are we Christians to do?

Two things, I think.

First, we should be able to thrive even as a minority in our societies. Faith does not rely on political power, after all, at least not this faith. And Jesus taught that we should expect oppression for our beliefs.

Second, there is an imperative to open doors to those who are not a part of the church. Too many individual churches really are social clubhouses; they (at least in part) exist to serve the beliefs and biases of the oldest and most powerful members of that church. Ministers avoid important topics to avoid offending those parishioners, even if those topics are the very ones that Jesus identified as most important.

If there is a third great awakening, I suspect it will not be lead by a silver-haired New England preacher. And wouldn't that be interesting to see?

Saturday, May 25, 2019


Bright side of the road

The best song for the end of spin class? This one. Absolutely.

Friday, May 24, 2019


Haiku Friday: Lunch

People labor over dinner-- for whatever reason, it is the meal people worry over the most, and most often share with those close to them.

Breakfast wants attention, but doesn't always get it. No one really thinks it is the "most important meal of the day," and lots of people ignore it entirely.

Lunch is somewhere in the middle (in more ways than one). I have been all over the map regarding lunch in the course of my life. Right now, it is usually pretty utilitarian: I need food and so I go to a place that sells food and buy some. Then I eat it.

But, at other times in my life lunch has borne more significance. I would love to get back to that, actually. 

Let's haiku about lunch-- what you eat, who you share it with, what it means, maybe the best one of your life.

Here, I will go first:

Texas barbecue
Eaten on the back porch, hot
Gotta love Vitek's.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Reality Show

Yesterday, President Trump had a meeting at the White House with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The topic was to be a new infrastructure initiative. It appears that the following things happened:

1) Pelosi and Schumer showed up, along with some other congressional leaders.
2) President Trump said that he wasn't going to deal with them until they concluded investigations into his administration.
3) Then President Trump left the room.
4) In the Rose Garden, Trump gave a press conference at a podium bearing the words "NO COLLUSION. NO OBSTRUCTION."
5) The press went nuts. Headlines blared things like "Dems react to Trump-Pelosi feud!"

So, really, nothing of substance happened here. They had a non-meeting.

The thing is, Donald Trump has learned how to control the narrative. And he controls it the way a reality show contestant does: by creating drama, and then letting others talk about it.

At some point, the press bears some responsibility for covering the show in exactly the way Trump intends.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


The new feature

Hearing no objections, starting next Wednesday I'm going to start profiling the people I went to law school with. I have begun to do some digging around, and the more I find the more intriguing the project becomes. There is a fascinating variety of stories, and an amazing array of paths that have been followed from that one point in place and time.

One thing I have found intriguing already is the different ways in which we seem to have defined and pursued success. Some, from the start, sought power. Others sought meaning, or to create social good. For some, probably, financial security was paramount, and it is clear that some chose family above everything else. And, of course, for a lot of us there is a mix of things. Seeking power and social good, for example, need not be mutually exclusive (though they do create tension if they are pursued simultaneously, I suspect).

And, of course, some people found success in a place or doing something that they did not intend to end up in. That happens, too.

As I start this project, I'm going to set some ground rules:

1) Only positive things and setbacks that have been surmounted will be part of what I describe. I have no interest in embarrassing anyone or writing about personal tragedies.

2) I'm only going to rely on and relate information that is already publicly available, preferably in bios that the people themselves have some control over. This isn't much of a limitation; I've found that for nearly everyone I have looked into there is a wealth of public information out there right now. I'll also rely on my own (positive) recollections for some people.

3)  I'm not going to go in any particular order-- it's going to be fairly random.

We'll start next week!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019


A thought for a new feature...

Not long ago, I was thinking about all the remarkable people I got to share law school with. Some of them are famous, a few are infamous, and all of them are fascinating. Over the past year, I've had the opportunity to re-connect with a number of them, and it reminded me of what an unusual crowd that was.

My idea is to pick one of those classmates to profile on, say, Wednesday of every week. What do you think?

Monday, May 20, 2019


On the bus!

I love what people did with this (though I thought more people would have bus stories!). We had all four directions of the country represented. First, from the West, this from DDR:

The school bus driver
Was a true alcoholic
And yet we lived.

CTL remembered a bus in the East (Philadelphia):

SEPTA buses are 
Zoos on wheels, but where people,
Not apes, throw feces.  

The Medievalist has a most Minnesota reflection:

Riding the school bus,
Going north to Grand Marais,
Lutherans canoeing.

And, probably my favorite, Christine rode the bus in the South:

Caught bus in Daytona
Moon lit skies, snow covered fields
A red-eye ride home.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Sunday Reflection: A private, public moment

Yesterday was commencement at UST law. Because the students chose me as the "Professor of the Year," I got the honor of being the person who puts the academic hood on each student as they cross the stage.

It is actually a tricky job. I'm not an especially tall guy, so it's a challenge to get it over the heads of some of the taller folks, and if you do it wrong it starts to look like a version of human ring toss. Those hats aren't too stable, either, and there is a real danger of knocking them off. And, of course, since the student is facing away from you, there is a good chance of putting the hood over their face instead of around their neck. At this commencement there was a special challenge, too: it was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church downtown, and the passageway by the pulpit where we did the hooding was very narrow, and fronted on a five-foot drop. There was a very low one-foot rail by the edge. There was a pretty good chance that if I messed up, some new grad was going to take a header over the edge.

But, none of that happened.

Instead, it was this series of really wonderful moments. As you do the hooding, all eyes are on you, of course. And yet, there is this intimacy to it, too, standing there with these people we have known for three years. As they came up, I knew many of their stories-- what their challenges were, their hopes, the context of all this fuss-- and it was hard not to get choked up. As I slipped the hood over their cap, I whispered something in their ear, some little bit of encouragement or thanks.

At my own graduation, 29 years ago, Dean Guido Calabresi did just that as I graduated. And I can still hear his voice.

Saturday, May 18, 2019


Campaign snapshot: A Friday morning at a coffeeshop in Iowa

Yesterday, I happened to be in central Iowa (you know how that goes-- sometimes you just can't avoid doing some business in central Iowa). After a little research, I found that Montana Governor and just-announced presidential candidate Steve Bullock was doing a "meet and greet" at Uncle Nancy's Coffeehouse in Newton, Iowa, so I headed over there. My hope was to ask him how he would use the constitutional pardon power (since that is kind of my thing, as you probably know).

Newton is an interesting town, best known as the onetime home of the Maytag Corporation. Maytag moved most of its operations to Mexico, merged with Whirlpool, and then just went away entirely, so this is a community that paid the price of internationalization. I would imagine the appeal of Donald Trump and "America First" would be pretty strong here, though the town does seem to have survived fairly well by diversifying its economy. It was good to see the Hotel Maytag being restored as well, albeit as apartments.

Uncle Nancy's sits on the town square, across from the classic 1911 Jasper County Courthouse. It's not a pretentious place--one poster advertised an upcoming concert by  Dokken-- and there was plenty of room for the 50 or so people who showed up to hear Bullock.

It's no secret that I support Amy Klobuchar in the primary (in fact, I supported her run before she announced it). Bullock seems to be running in the same lane as Klobuchar, and every position he articulated yesterday tracked the points Klobuchar staked out some time ago. He did have an intentional bit of a folksy air to him, which is a little iffy coming from a guy who went to Claremont McKenna and Columbia Law and worked for Steptoe and Johnson.  Of course, that persona was utilized a long time ago by Naval Academy grad and nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter, and I love that guy. Bullock also mentioned "Jasper County" several times, which I suppose is intended to create a bond with the locals ("Hey! Check it out! This guy knows where he is currently located!"). It feels like pandering, and after the fourth or fifth time it was cringe-worthy.

Unfortunately, Bullock didn't take my question. Somewhat suspiciously, he took questions almost exclusively from a group of older folks sitting directly in front of him. Their questions seemed to go to his obvious talking points, and once he was done with them, the guy in the  ethanol-plant workman's vest asking about ethanol, and a guy in a Bullock button asking him to talk about his health plan, he closed down the Q & A. It seemed like an odd amount of question-planting and staging for a crowd of 50 people in a place called "Uncle Nancy's." That level of control did not work out well for Hillary Clinton.

I'm not the first person to observe this, but I think it is an important point that was really apparent as I stood in that room: Iowa is not representative of the United States. There were no black or brown faces at Uncle Nancy's, and I was relatively young among that crowd (and I am 56!). Given the outsized importance of the Iowa caucuses, that is troubling. It would make sense to have the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary on the same day, to diversify the participants in the winnowing process. 

It was fascinating to see this little sliver of the electoral process. I may come back to Iowa this summer to see some more...

Friday, May 17, 2019


Haiku Friday: On the bus

I heard a short presentation today about new electric buses coming into service here in Minneapolis-- $1.5 million buses!

Sometimes I'll take the bus to work, and in the past I have taken some longer trips on the bus (as have most people... and isn't it weird that we refer to any kind of bus in the simple singular, ie "the bus?").

We all have a bus story. Let's make them into haiku. Here, I will go first:

I sat with Fournier
All the way to Iowa
Epic adventure.

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

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: What the Right and the Left are getting

Just because I can (and also kinda because I will be in the area anyways) tomorrow morning I am going to head over to Uncle Nancy's Coffeehouse in Newton, Iowa for a meet n' greet with Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who as of this week is running for president. Perhaps I will get to meet "Uncle Nancy" too!  

That election is a long ways away, though, and we still have time to think more broadly about bigger issues. 

At the broadest level, I was captivated by a book review in the New York Times by David From. He was reviewing Adam Gopnick's book "A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism." At the center of the piece, this quote from the book jumped right out at me:

“The basic American situation in which the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones. … The left manages to get sombreros banned from college parties while every federal court in the country is assigned a far-right-wing activist judge.”

How true is that? I was almost toppled over by the insight that the right wants cultural victories and gets political ones, while the left wants political victories but is winning the culture war. It is so true! 

But isn't that unsustainable? Eventually, won't both sides see the disconnect and change either what they want or their tactics?

Or, perhaps more ominously, the right winning the political war-- and the judge-picking that goes with it-- will allow them to enforce cultural norms not held by the majority of the country. That, of course, could lead to their loss of political power but (because of lifetime appointments) not their hold over the judiciary, where culture can be capped and controlled.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


A Cart for America's Drunkest Golfer

I'm not a huge golf fan. I think the use of land for golf courses in some places (ie, Los Angeles) is pretty ridiculous, and it drives me bananas to see it on TV, with the whispering announcers and tracking shots of a tiny white ball someplace against a herky-jerky sky. Still, I have to admit that it does have some fascinating personalities floating around.

For the last three decades one of them has been John Daly, who was just approved to ride a cart for the PGA Championship, drawing a rebuke from Tiger Woods, who recalled that he walked the course (and won that tournament) on a broken leg.

Daly has a variety of ailments that make walking difficult, and I don't begrudge him the cart (though, again, I don't know much about this sport and its traditions, so I probably should not have an opinion at all).

Daly is a character: probably the only pro golfer to be arrested for public drunkenness in the parking lot of a Hooter's restaurant, he claims to have lost over $50,000,000 gambling (including over a million dollars in one slot machine). He has also recorded two albums. I have not heard them.

More than anything, he reminds me of Denny McClain, the Tigers pitching ace who actually looked like Daly and had some similar issues, right down to cutting a poorly-received album. (I actually wrote about him here 12 years ago, in the first month of the blog!).

Sports really is just a series of human-interest stories, and that's not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


The Ronald Sullivan Debacle

In the little academic world I work within, Ronald Sullivan, Jr. is a big deal. When I started thinking about clemency work-- in 2009-- he was the first person I met with. Sullivan is a Harvard Law Professor who runs a fantastic clinic there; many of the people I have worked with were his students at one time or another.

He and his wife have also served as the Deans of one of Harvard's residential colleges for undergraduates, Winthrop House. It's a job that includes a certain amount of leading, counseling, and inspiring the undergrads, and usually means living in the dorm with them.

Like me, Sullivan sometimes works as a lawyer on behalf of clients embroiled in criminal law (mine are all pro bono; I am not sure if his work is pro bono or paid).  Recently, he took on the representation of Harvey Weinstein, and that is when things got weird, according to the NY Times.

Students protested Sullivan's work with Weinstein, who is accused of a series of sexual assaults. There was a sit-in, and it sounds like the atmosphere was generally tense. Then, last Saturday, Sullivan and his wife were informed that their contracts would not be renewed.

It could be that the termination was based on considerations other than the dispute over Weinstein, but observers seem to think that it was the Weinstein issue that led to the non-renewal. Though, according to the Harvard Crimson, there were allusions to previous management disputes, it certainly seems that the Weinstein representation drove the current turmoil. As it turns out, Sullivan had already withdrawn from the Weinstein team due to scheduling conflicts.

The core problem here is one we often see in political contexts when good defense lawyers run for office and then are castigated for their work: Defense lawyers represent fantastically unpopular people. By definition, their clients are accused of crimes, often terrible ones. That's what defense attorneys do, and it is an essential role within our system of justice. We want someone-- and someone talented-- to be there for the person accused of a theft, of an assault, of selling drugs, or of sexual assault. When I was a prosecutor, I always appreciated a hard-working, smart defense lawyer; their presence meant I had to do my job well. 

To turn a person's representation of an unpopular person accused of a crime into a political issue is wrong, and it may exacerbate a serious existing problem: the difficulty in some places of getting good lawyers to represent those accused of crimes.

Within the context of education, pushing Sullivan out teaches a terrible lesson. The value of defending the unpopular is at the center of our conceptions of justice, and Harvard has affirmed the opposite, as Conor Friedersdorf explained at The Atlantic.

I have no problem with students (or anyone else) protesting Harvey Weinstein. It is senseless, though, to protest the person who might defend Harvey Weinstein in court. 

Monday, May 13, 2019


In the rain

I love when haiku reflect the writer; the kind of thing that no one else could have done. And there were two like that last week, on the subject of rain. First, there was this from Christine:

I smell it, nearing...
Slight breezes ruffle the leaves
Raindrops hit my cheeks.

And then there is this from (naturally) the Spanish Medievalist:

The rain in Spain falls
On the just and unjust alike,
Just made this one up.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Mother's Day

It's a weird holiday, isn't it?

Here is why: I don't think we ever fully realize what it is that our mothers have given us. We see the obvious stuff--advice, the provisions of life-- but there is always something deeper in play, too. Our moms, in a million different ways, crafted who we become. Sometimes it was intentional, and sometimes it was not.

For me, that is all to the good. One thing about my mom that is remarkable is that she always tries to see the best in everyone; she takes no pleasure in anyone's tragedies. That is such a rare quality today.  When I am tempted to do otherwise (a temptation I sometimes succumb to), I hear her voice urging the better way.

There is no one thing that can be said about all mothers, other than this: they mattered.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


Well, that's discouraging...

Clemency in the form of a commutation (shortening of sentence) is, in a way, a delicate social pact between the executive and someone in prison. The president is counting on the person receiving the commutation to hold up their end of the deal and take advantage of the mercy they have been shown.

That's why it is discouraging to read things like this piece in the Waco paper, which describes Ricky Lamont Garrett's commutation, re-arrest, and conviction. I'm surprised he got clemency under the Obama program, given its supposed limits, and saddened by his poor choices once he received that gift of freedom. He evaded police and was found with three bags of ecstasy.

One incident, though, does not indict the entire project. The truer metric will be to compare redivism rates of those who received clemency with those who served a full term. That work hasn't been done yet, and I won't go beyond discouragement based on one case until we see that.

Friday, May 10, 2019


Haiku Friday: The rain

Traditional haiku often deals with nature themes, and I get pretty far afield here at the Razor. Let's try it out this week, though.

This is the time of year when rain sweeps in and makes everything green (at least in Minnesota). I love the way it looks and feels. 

Here, I will go first:

There is a sound, first
A gentle whoosh, and it's here
Cat footsteps appear.

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

Thursday, May 09, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Blockade

I have a theory.

Over the past several days, the Trump administration has pretty much stopped providing anything to the House of Representatives' committees that conducting investigations. Most recently, the administration asserted executive privilege over the Mueller report, and the House Judiciary Committee held Attorney General William Barr in contempt over the move.

It's hard not to  think that a directive from the top has come down: give them nothing. 

I don't think it is the "Constitutional Crisis" some are declaring; the Constitution says almost nothing about any of this. I know... it does create a separation of powers generally, and there are cases upholding the House's ability to subpoena the president, but I don't think we can call something a Constitutional Crisis unless there is a threat to something clearly within that document.

So, anyways, my theory:

I suspect that this administration would welcome impeachment on the current facts, and are inviting it at this point. Here is why:

First, impeachment would almost certainly be futile, given the composition of the Senate.

Second, if impeachment happens and the Senate inevitably acquits, it is vindication for Trump in the eyes of many.

Third, it plays into Trump's core narrative that the "elites" are out to get him.

Fourth, they know that worse facts may come out later, and the Democrats are unlikely to pull off two impeachments; there just isn't time. Better to have them burn it off now.

Finally, even if the House does not impeach, this tactic kills a lot of time.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


SNL in the 1980's

I remember watching Saturday Night Live in the 1970's, when the original cast (John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman) were just creating something that people loved. It was a cultural phenomenon. 

Then, in 1980, they all left. For a lot of people, that ushered in a dark period for the show, where the product did not live up to expectations set by that original cast. Looking back at it, though, it is pretty remarkable who appeared as cast members during that period, some of them for only one season before getting booted. Check out this partial list of cast member from 1980-87:

Billy Crystal
Joan Cusack
Robert Downey, Jr.
Christine Ebersole
Gilbert Gottfried
Christopher Guest
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss
Jon Lovitz
Laurie Metcalf
Anthony Michael Hall
Dennis Miller
Eddie Murphy
Joe Piscapo
Randy Quaid
Harry Shearer
Martin Short
Daman Wayans

Tuesday, May 07, 2019


Tonight in DC!

If you live in or around DC, I hope you will be able to come to something I have been looking forward to for weeks. Tonight, Dr. Joanne Braxton will moderate a discussion between Nkechi Taifa and I about the idea of reparations for African-American communities. It's a complicated and important issue-- just the type I love to talk about. We'll get things going at 6, and it's all happening at the Potter's House in Adams-Morgan. You can get all the details here.

Monday, May 06, 2019


Summer vacation(s)

Ah, summer! And the wacky travel it can bring. There were some wonderful haiku on the subject this week. For example, we had this from the Spanish Medievalist (which I suppose makes sense, right?):

Madrid summer sun,
Old medieval monuments,
Steaming paella.

Jill Scoggins has a dream-- like, a real nighttime dream-- about this:

From my dreams last night:
A Portuguese jewel hued
sun soaked palace. Why?

And I loved this evocative poem by CTL:

Salty ocean breeze 
Fills the lungs, soaks up troubles,
Carries them away. 

Sunday, May 05, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Winning by losing

Over the course of my life, I have failed to achieve many things I really desired in that moment. Sometimes, it hurt a lot to have failed. In my early 20's, having graduated from college, I really struggled to find my footing. I tried very hard to get a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, and got nowhere. A few place asked for more information; I provided it and then never heard from them again.

After a while, I tried to get almost any decent-paying job that would allow me some financial independence. Again and again, I was turned down.  When I tried to get a job with Northwest Airlines as a gate agent or flight attendant, I didn't make it past the first round. My self-esteem was dragging.

Eventually, I took a low-paying, no-status job doing menial jobs for a law firm, including working as a process server.  Probably, I wasn't that good at it, in part because I read over everything I was handling, fascinated. Which, of course, led to law school.

When we fail, we often think God has failed us. But... perhaps there is something larger going on, as always.

Saturday, May 04, 2019


Mayor Pete-- interesting dude

Like many others, I have recently learned how to pronounce Pete Buttigieg's last name ("Boot Edge-edge)") and a handful of other things about him.

Will he be the Democratic nominee for president? It seems pretty unlikely. But, of course, at this point in the campaign it seemed pretty unlikely that Donald Trump would be the nominee of the Republicans in 2016. 

I am glad to see a Democrat talk openly and comfortably about faith. A lot of Democratic candidates and elected officials seem to have faith lives that are important to them, but few ever talk about that-- which cedes the field to Republicans and their allies like Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Of course, a lot of people would prefer that politicians never talk about religion, but that's short-sighted. Given that many Americans are still guided by faith in their values and (sometimes) their actions, if we don't talk about this we won't know the true beliefs of our public officials.

Friday, May 03, 2019


Haiku Friday: Summer dream trip

We all have fantasies of going someplace amazing this summer-- I know that I do. Whether it is something spectacular (Africa, Australia) or more mundane (camping in a quiet wood), let's haiku about that this week!

Here, I will go first:

At a cabin, on
An island, with some good folks
And Pink Unicorn. 

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

Thursday, May 02, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: Comey Strikes Back

After a period of seemingly just hoping all this would go away (and who can blame him), James Comey decided to opine on current events in the New York Times. It's a pretty remarkable piece, which you can read here.

Focusing on William Barr, whose testimony yesterday in the Senate was probably hailed within the White House and has been subject to much debate outside of it, is the primary target of Comey's op-ed, though he also loops in Rod Rosenstein and (more generously) Jim Mattis. His question, verbatim, is this: "What happened to these people?"

His conclusion is pretty stunning, and not just because he slips into the second person perspective. Let's face it-- eating souls is a fairly out-there allegation! Here is the ending, the uncoiling of the snake, where Comey includes himself among those who have gone along with it all:

Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it — this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room. 
I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that. Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.
From the private circle of assent, it moves to public displays of personal fealty at places like cabinet meetings. While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does — you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him. 
Sure, you notice that Mr. Mattis never actually praises the president, always speaking instead of the honor of representing the men and women of our military. But he’s a special case, right? Former Marine general and all. No way the rest of us could get away with that. So you praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter.
Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. Yet you are silent. Because, after all, what are you supposed to say? He’s the president of the United States.
You feel this happening. It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now. 
You can’t say this out loud — maybe not even to your family — but in a time of emergency, with the nation led by a deeply unethical person, this will be your contribution, your personal sacrifice for America. You are smarter than Donald Trump, and you are playing a long game for your country, so you can pull it off where lesser leaders have failed and gotten fired by tweet.

Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.
And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


From the hate-mail bag!

I get a lot of mail at work. It breaks down about like this:

75%: Mail from people in prison
10%: Magazines, junk mail, and catalogues
10%: Letters from people I know
5%: Hate mail

Invariably, the letters from people in prison are polite. Even the people with loopy legal theories or unfortunate ideas of what my work entails are nice about it. So are the letters from people I know. Even the catalogues seem to have good intent.

As for hate mail, the internet has largely taken that business away from the postal service. Most of the nasty-grams I get are emails now, which is kind of sad in its own way. I get a lot of those after I have written something on a controversial topic. It's not a big deal; it comes with the territory. Of course, they often don't send them to me but to my Dean or others, thinking that perhaps upon hearing that I am part of the "Lib Scum Army" that the Dean's hair will stand straight up and I will be fired. The most caustic emails came in response to my support of same-sex marriage (check out the comments here for an example of typical verbiage, often arguing that I should be cast into a "lake of sulfur"), but there is a steady stream most of the time, usually asserting that I am a traitor to the race, or to the law, or to DOJ, or (for a while) Brett Kavanaugh.

Of course, email carries with it a certain accountability, since there is almost always a way to find out who wrote the email, and it is possible to write back. Anonymous letters, archaic as they are, are one of the last refuges (along with comment sections) of true cowards.

Yesterday I got one of the funnier bits of hate mail I have received in a while. It came in the exact type of envelope that prisoners use, but it had no return address (and was, as is typical, unsigned).  He appears to have been responding to my piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week about the Mueller Report. Inexplicably, he included a copy of the article I had written.

Here is how he began:

What a HACK you are- one of the major issues I have is that you claim to 'train future prosecutors'- oh, you mean like Andrew Weismann? 

It is very worrisome that the legal system has dedicated partisans such as yourself involved in it.

It all emanates from "The One"-- your boy-- OBAMA- trust me on this.

I goes on like this for a while. But just to unpack that opening...

First of all, I would be very proud if I had a role in training legendary prosecutor Andrew Weismann. For one thing, I'd be working at Columbia Law School, which would be pretty cool (at least for a few months). Also, I'd have played a role in educating the guy who led the successful prosecution of mob boss Vincent Gigante and headed up the DOJ's fraud section. I'd be pleased as punch if one of my students has a career like that-- and some of them very well might.

Then, of course, we have the reference to our first black president as "boy," and all that goes with that term. It seems this particular coward has some other issues as well.

If nothing else, this gives me an appreciation for those in prison, and the better envelopes I get from them which always include a name, a return address, and a cogent point or request.

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