Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Josh Gerstein, writing in the NY Sun, tells a fascinating story of James Dean Walker, an Arkansas prisoner on the lam, and the Clintons during Bill Clinton's years as Governor of Arkansas. The prisoner's story has strong elements of a real life "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia (make that Arkansas) Chain Gang".
Walker's most passionate advocates were Jessica Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft, founder of the left-wing Oakland law firm where Hillary Clinton spent a summer as a law student. Jessica Mitford tried repeatedly to intervene with the Clintons. She received brittle replies from Hillary and no help - no surprise, perhaps, for connoisseurs of the Clintons over the years.
The story brings together a cast of characters with an extraordinary range of connections. The Clintons themselves of course. Jessica Mitford, sometimes-Communist daughter of an eccentric English baron: a high-spirited and hilariously funny activist, author of the classic send-up of the American funeral industry "The American Way of Death", and also of a funny and touching autobiography and story of her bizarre family "Hons and Rebels".
And yes, Adolf Hitler enters the picture: a Mitford sister, Unity Mitford, spent the 1930s in Germany, met and fell in love with Hitler, and shot herself in despair over him. Another Mitford sister married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists - they were married in the Berlin home of Josef Goebbels; Hitler was the guest of honour. Mosley was a prime candidate for British Quisling if the Nazis had conquered England. (Mosley, lightly disguised as "Sir Roderick Spode", was mocked by P.G. Wodehouse in one of the Jeeves stories, "The Code of the Woosters".) The Mosleys were interned in prison in England during the war: Winston Churchill personally decided that Oswald Mosley was a menace and not to be released.
I even have a connection of my own to this story. The Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals Judge who eventually released James Dean Walker was Myron Bright, of Fargo, North Dakota. ("Bright now lectures about the case and keeps in touch with Walker. 'He calls me every Christmas and thanks me for giving his life back,' Judge Bright, 88, said.") Mike Bright was a congregant of my father's when my father was a rabbi in Fargo, and a close friend of my parents through the years.
This saga of Andre J. in the NY Times has some deeper meaning; I just don't know what it is.
At least I know now I should say "amaaaazing" where before I would have said "fabulous." Since I never said fabulous, however, that is not much use to me.
The Washington Post reports ongoing claims for reparation by the descendants of Jewish families who were expropriated - robbed - of their property by the Nazis. The Post story is about Germany, although there are similar claims, usually dealt with much less sympathetically, in Austria, Poland, France, even Switzerland, where the banks fenced Nazi loot during the war.
The Post story alludes to surviving slave workers in Nazi camps, now very elderly, who don't have enough to live on decently.
But the main focus of the story is a lawsuit by the descendants of property developers in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, who were forced to sell out to the Nazis at a fraction of the worth of their land. The land was then mostly undeveloped, but it has been built up in the intervening decades.
"We have had the door slammed in our face and our history denied," said Peter Y. Sonnenthal, 53, a U.S. citizen and former attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Along with his sister, he has been fighting a legal battle since 1991 to reclaim hundreds of parcels of property that they say their Jewish ancestors sold under duress in the upscale Berlin suburb of Teltow.
I think such lawsuits are probably a bad idea. The people who live on this land now are not exactly innocent - "holders in due course", as lawyers say - since they may have known, or could have known, or perhaps should have known that the land was ultimately acquired by Nazi chicanery. But it all happened nearly 70 years ago. The books on financial restitution have to close sometime, at least for descendants of the Nazis' victims, especially in the case of later generations who have been able to build decent lives of their own in new countries.
I think the case is very different for surviving slave labourers - or concentration camp survivors - who are now old and in need.
And I have somewhat different feelings about countries other than Germany, which have not confronted what they did during the Nazi years, and have done little - and that grudgingly - to make any restitution at all. Austria comes to mind.
It seems to me that the Jewish people, as a people, have a claim on Germany, and on other European countries, for decent public and private respect for historical facts; and also for fundamental support for the State of Israel. This does not mean unquestioning support for any particular Israeli policy, although the glaring and often fervid hostility to the Jewish State in many European countries - again, not so much Germany - is transparently animated by something other, and far darker, than "disagreement with Israeli policy", whatever the Europeans might sometimes claim by way of ritual disclaimer.
But claims by descendants for land or art works or other property stolen in the 1930s and 1940s? Especially if these descendants are not living in hardship?
I tend to think that some award to these families would be the right thing. And a more substantial contribution to Jewish and other charities - perhaps to be agreed upon by the European government in question, the family, and the organised Jewish community. But not adversarial litigation and claims for full, private restitution. The moral statute of limitations is fast approaching for that, if it has not already run.
At least in Germany.
That is sort of what I think, anyway, except at moments when I think the opposite.
Monday, November 26, 2007
The new Kindle book reader looks very cool. And what is almost as interesting, you can watch a 6 minute video at Amazon illustrating how it works. If there turns out to be enough books available for them, I could imagine buying one -- maybe not at $400 but for $250.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Not only would it not be a great idea for the Supremes to nullify the Second Amendment -- if they do, you can expect an enthusiastic movement to amend the Constitution so as to (re)protect the right that is already there. That is not the sort of thing the Supreme Court needs. It would be bound to lead to many more people thinking that the Court cannot be trusted with the Constitution.
The analogy is to alcohol: Some things are so deeply ingrained in a culture that trying to prohibit them just ends up discrediting the legal regime. A federal decree that people don't really have the right to own guns would go over about as well as prohibition in many parts of the country. OTOH it might be a good issue to have for 2008.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
About a week ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion essay penned by Sandra Day O'Connor critical of certain judicial selection procedures in state courts. She argued that partisan judicial elections have become corrupted by special interest money in states like Pennsylvania and are not the way to go. Instead, she favored a system under which "an independent commission of knowledgeable citizens recommends several qualified candidates suitable for appointment by the governor of the state." Under this system, she said, after a few years of services, judges could be subject to a retention ballot. Or not.
Fine. O'Connor's bottom line may be right. Or not. As a lawyer, I've seen the results of several different such systems up close and personal. I also worked for the Senate Committee on the Judiciary during the last part of the Clinton Administration, so I've seen the federal system at work from the inside. And I've heard more than a few stories from insiders about slating sessions for judicial candidates in Illinois and meetings of the JNE Commission here in California. It's a mistake to get too romantic about any of these methods. They are sausage factories that would make you sick if you knew everything about them. But until we can get set up a system of judicial selection by heavenly decree, they are, in the judgment of those who originated them, the best we can do.
My beef is not about O'Connor's expressed preferences (although I would have enjoyed her article more if she had acknowledged some of the many drawbacks of placing responsibility for judicial selection in the hands of a panel of self-interested "experts." My criticism is her choice of vocabulary. Like many bureaucratically minded folks, O'Connor refers to her preferred system as "merit selection." On the other had, her disfavored system she calls "partisan election." Under her "merit-selection system", a panel of experts will select "qualified candidates." Under the partisan election system, she evidently believes the voters pick unqualified candidates.
Well, maybe. But it seems to me that you've got to prove that. Simply calling your preferred system "merit selection" and the other system something else is loading the argument. VOTERS BELIEVE THEY'RE SELECTING JUDGES ON THE BASIS OF MERIT TOO. I note for the record that I've known both great and terrible judges in Illinois, in California and in the federal courts. I'm open to arguments as to how these systems could be improved, but I would prefer that these arguments not be made by writers who are naive enough to believe one system is selection by merit and the other not.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Thursday, November 22, 2007
When the universe gets doomed that is. This may have happened, some physicists argue, because the discovery of dark energy will reset the decay from the false vacuum that caused the Big Bang in the first place. No, I have no idea what that means really, but it sounds pretty cool, if unfortunate for us, not to mention for the purple slime maggots of Alpha Centauri.