31 March 2009

Who is in charge, here?


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
   -- Through the Looking Glass

A U S Supreme Court memorandum order (called a 'Slip Opinion' here) today said:

The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently
It is so ordered.


Some Latin in there. 'PER CURIAM' is: By the Court as a complete panel and entity, without specific attribution of the action to any particular Justice. A 'writ of certiorari' is: a publicly stated intent of the Court to receive a case for presentation and argument, and possibly (usually) decision.

That a matter is characterized as: "improvidently granted" is not Latin, but is a 'term of art' -- basically: It turns out we (as a decision making body) cannot, will not, or should decide after, and we decline to consider the particular aspect of the case we initially though we should hear for the present.

It happens -- maybe with one member of the Court ill, the Court decided it needed to lighten its load; perhaps some conflict came to light in the investment portfolio of some Justices that the remaining (non-recusing) panel members of the Court felt now that fairly they could not hear and decide the matter, to avoid the appearance of making a biased, short handed, or improper decision.

The functional effect of such a terse statement is to leave intact and in effect the next prior lower court's ruling

While a lawyer's craft is well depicted in television crime procedurals, the more cerebral parts of avoiding issues which make one interesting for television, are decidedly more valuable services a lawyer provides to the general society, when advising a client. A lawyer's opinion can help the client see the areas to avoid; how to structure its affairs. The Court speaks in a completely understood fashion here, to communicate just what it intends to say, and nothing else

The recent 'mob rule' in Congress of vilifying and proposing to punishingly tax the folks at AIG who had clear contracts for payment of a 'retention' and performance bonus, in exchange for staying on as the ship of AIG seemed to be sinking (and indeed staying and doing their contractual duty) show how fragile civilization is. All the hollow words about 'fairness' and populist anger cannot mask the fact that Congress successfully pointed the finger of blame away from itself and the government, and toward a tiny minority of our society. If a Constitution, contracts, and rule of law are so readily cast aside, no one is safe. Paris 1789 and following, all over again. Whom shall the mob turn to next?


The use of words is how we explain to another, and sometimes to ourselves, what we are thinking; why we believe what we believe; permit us to reflect and find weak points in our thought processes. Structured words -- Court decisions, Constitutions, laws, opinion letters from lawyers are part of an ongoing societal dialog

We are all diminished when cheap talk trumps reason