Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- May 11-17, 2003

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This page includes posts from May 11-17, 2003 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

May 17, 2003
DNC Spam

My tolerance for excessive political rhetoric has significantly diminished over the years.

Perhaps I should tell the Democratic National Committee, seeing as how I’m registered in that party and they’re sending me spam.

This week Terry McAuliffe e-mailed a new piece dealing with the potential for vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. To judge from this spam, the DNC must think that six of the current justices plan to retire in the next three months.

The first part of the message allegedly quotes former President Carter, who tells the spam recipients the following:

"The United States Senate must be vigilant in preventing the approval of federal judges who are nominated because their extreme right-wing philosophy will, through future rulings, adversely affect America's environment, basic freedoms, and social interrelationships."

This passage has its own interesting elements. First, it expanded the area of interest beyond the Supreme Court to the entire Federal judiciary, where the Democrats are already engaged in filibuster-light tactical skirmishes over several nominees. Second, the sentence is dotted with buzz words, sure to invoke emotional responses instead of generating thought: “extreme right-wing,” “basic freedoms,” and “social interrelationships.”

I guess the DNC believes that all Bush-nominated judges will outlaw friendships among gays and straights, men and women, and among the races. I can’t imagine what else they could be referring to, can you? On the other hand, I wonder on what basis the DNC believes that a Bush-nominated judiciary will overrule the individual rights recognized by the Second Amendment. Maybe the spam writers were thinking about some other basic freedom, and simply overstated their opposition.

The President’s signature is simply “Jimmy,” which still managed to produce a cringe after all these years.

The second part of the spam reminded its readers of the upcoming anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Of course, that decision was issued during the tenure of a Chief Justice who was formerly a Republican governor of California, and who was nominated by a Republican President.

Maybe McAuliffe forgot that part of American history.

The spam continued with this statement:

With Supreme Court retirements looming as the current session winds down, a Bush-packed Supreme Court is a genuine danger. Bush's extreme right-wing nominees endanger our most cherished values -- public education, civil rights, environmental protections, voting rights, and more.

Again with the “extreme right-wing” language. With all due respect to my fellow Democrats at the DNC, that kind of rhetoric doesn’t do much for me. Considering that there are no current openings on the Court, and that there are no nominees awaiting confirmation to the Court, I can only assume that the DNC is attempting a polemical pre-emptive strike—this is the kind of opposition any nominee will receive from the DNC, regardless of actual character and ability, solely due to the fact that Bush will make the nomination.

The spam then asks its readers to sign an online petition to President Bush. From the tone of it, the writer of the message clearly doesn’t really believe it will convince the President to alter his choices:

We will not sit idly by while you and your right-wing allies plot to imperil our cherished and hard-fought values.

We will not be silent when you try to pack the Supreme Court with extremist nominees.

We will stand up and oppose your right-wing nominees to a lifetime seat on our nation's highest court.

We will hold firm in our commitment to civil rights, reproductive freedom, workers' rights, the environment, the fight against discrimination, voting rights, religious liberty, and free speech.

We will fight for our children. We will fight for our families. We will fight for our future. We will fight for our values.

America will not take a single step back when it comes to our freedoms.

This is a fight you will not win.

I’m sure that there are similar pieces of spam floating out there from the Republicans, but I don’t receive them. In either case, I wonder whether these political party leaders actually believe that this kind of flame-throwing will increase the number of those who are on their side.

I just don’t see how anyone could come to that conclusion. To me, this stuff seems like preaching to the choir, and every bit as effective.

May 16, 2003
Two kinds of foam


While out and about today, I saw two distinctly different kinds of foam.

The first one was soap-based, at a water fountain just outside a bank in the state capital. According to one bank official, the suds were the result of a student prank:

Soap added to a water fountain created huge piles of foam in Dover.

The second one was salt-based. Today a nor'easter blasted our coast, creating some wild surf and some nasty beach erosion:

Rough surf at Rehoboth Beach during a May 2003 nor'easter.

The natural version was far more impressive, although the man-made version was good for a grin or two.


May 16, 2003
A tip about tats


Here's some handy advice for the criminal seeking to hide the evidence:

If you're going to chop up the body of the man you kill, make sure you also scrape off all of his tattoos.

A Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion issued yesterday makes this point indirectly.

The opening paragraph of the decision opens with a descriptive flourish that would have been a perfect start to a classic bit of film noir:

On a November day in 1990, a backhoe operator at a landfill in Minnesota was shocked when he saw a severed arm fall out of a plastic bag lodged in a pile of garbage he was trying to move.

Not your everyday trash-moving experience, it seems.

It just so happened that there was a distinctive tattoo on the arm, however, showing

a bare-chested woman riding astride a tiger.

The tattoo was a vital clue. It helped the police figure out the mystery of what happened to a certain Wisconsin lowlife named Robert Melby. The motorcycle gang member had been missing for six months when this fleshy reminder of his artistic past came back to haunt the backhoe operator.

Discovering that Melby died was only part of the puzzle. It took an additional 12 years before anyone faced any criminal penalties for his untimely passing and dismemberment.

In 2002 a man named Daniel Boos, Melby's old gang leader and a former resident of the Federal correctional system, faced a new set of criminal charges. By then the police knew that Boos murdered Melby, but evidentiary problems in the case prevented them from directly charging Boos with that crime. Instead, Boos was convicted for using his gang's "clubhouse" to sell speed and cocaine, and for possessing firearms as a felon.

During sentencing, the government suggested Boos should receive an enhanced sentence because he killed Melby. The two-day hearing included evidence of jailhouse confessions and other proof of some folks' inability to keep their own mouths shut and not threaten others. After the hearing, the judge agreed with the government. The trial court increased Boos' sentence from the normal 121 to 151 month range to a consecutive sentence totaling 30 years on the two charges.

Naturally, Boos did not care for this result, and appealed.


The Circuit Court did not share his concern that perhaps he had been ill-treated by the system. First, the consecutive sentences were still within the guideline limits, although obviously for many more years that Boos would have received if it wasn't for all those inconvenient facts about Melby. Second, even if the trial court was held to a stronger proof standard than the preponderance-of-the-evidence level usually employed in sentencing proceedings, the two days of evidence heard in this case more than met any such higher proof requirement.


The real moral of the story, of course, is that if it weren't for the tattoo of the lady riding the tiger, it would have been highly unlikely that anyone would have connected the severed arm to Melby's mysterious disappearance. If Boos had cut off the tattoo when he cut up the body, he might have successfully escaped paying the price to society for the murder.


It's always the little things, isn't it?

May 15, 2003
Major Claude points for this one

The quintessential Claude award candidate is a headline or phrase that is as utterly without surprise or newsworthiness as possible, while still masquerading as news.

Today’s recipient is a major winner—an AP headline conveying a near-total absence of fresh information:

Democrats Squabble Despite Clinton Warning

Ron Fournier’s story notes the skirmishing among Democrats vying for the 2004 presidential nomination, at a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council. The report included this additional passage, which would have been a good Claude candidate itself except for the sterling quality of its headline:

The bickering underscored a constant tug-of-war between the party's liberal core, which tend to dominate primary elections, and the moderate wing that carries the day in general elections.

As soon as I saw this story, the famous quote by Will Rogers came to mind:

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.

Rogers said this over 60 years ago, and it's still true.

This one earned five Claudes.

May 14, 2003
The New York Times and the Peter Principle

Readers of a certain age may recall The Peter Principle, a popular business book first published in 1969.

This slim volume described, explained, and embellished upon the fundamental point of Dr. Laurence J. Peter’s advice to managers of long-established institutions:

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

I thought of this informative and factual treatise as I considered the fix in which the NYT now finds itself concerning the Blair fiasco. As recounted in the newspaper’s own mea culpa story on the screw-up, there were plenty of instances of serial incompetence within the organization--not only with the junior reporter whose meteoric rise in the newspaper’s ranks shot him past his true abilities, but also with the senior management that kept promoting him.

To be sure, others at the NYT did not exhibit the signs that they had achieved their own level of incompetence:

Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”

Far from disproving my point, however, this example actually fits Dr. Peter’s analysis, as noted in this online book review:

According to Dr. Peter: Work is accomplished by those employees who have not reached their level of incompetence. Thus we can see why organizations still function even as the Peter Principle causes some employees to accept one too many promotions.

As for senior management, including Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., Executive Editor Howell Raines, and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, the Peter Corollary provides perhaps the best explanation for their roles in creating this indelible stain on the paper’s credibility, its only real asset:

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.

As the book points out, examples of the Peter Corollary occur because those who achieve their own level of incompetence are unable to detect incompetence in others, thus leading to unwise promotions. In this instance, if I recall correctly Sulzberger promoted Raines to the Executive Editor position from Raines’ previous post overseeing the editorial pages.

Perhaps Sulzberger now regrets that decision.

A minor but telling example also appears in the “bares repeating” spelling error noted in the NYT e-mail posted at The Smoking Gun.

I therefore respectfully suggest that the Peter Principle and its Corollary provide the best, most universally understood, and most broadly acceptable explanations for this awful example of near-total media incompetence.

It remains to be seen if the rest of the NYT management can recognize these signs themselves and take effective action. At this point, however, that prospect does not look promising.

May 14, 2003
A nice milestone


I'm pleased to note that today is the 25th anniversary of my graduation from law school.


May 13, 2003
Not entirely blameless, but then again maybe there’s a reason for what they're not doing

I have some trouble understanding why the Republican leadership in the Senate continues to permit the use of filibuster-light tactics by the Democrats opposing some of the President’s judicial nominations.

It’s not as if the Democratic Senators have blocked all of Mr. Bush's choices. Many have gone through successfully, some with barely a whisper of dissent.

On the other hand, to the extent that Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owens, and others are left hanging by the continued opposition of a minority of the Senate, I can’t really blame the Democrats, as the folks at OpinionJournal did today.

After all, who’s in charge?

Bill Frist gives every appearance of being a courtly yet savvy Majority Leader in many other respects. Nonetheless, he seems too reluctant to hold the Democrats to the full requirements of a real filibuster.

Perhaps the real problem is that the Republicans themselves can’t stand that prospect, for whatever reasons. Then again, their polling data may be telling them that it's not yet time to assert the full power of their majority status.

I can understand how some folks might be a bit squeamish about the political warfare to which these two nominees have been subjected.

Even so, it’s not the first time that those in the minority not only picked the fight, but also selected the turf on which the fight would take place. It’s up to the majority party to force a change past its opposition, if it truly has the courage of its convictions.

The OpinionJournal writer took off after Tom Daschle for his inconsistent arguments. Referring to Daschle’s 1995 statements for a proposed cloture rule that would have limited debate and forced a vote for nominations, the piece noted the following:

That … had the support of none other than Tom Daschle, who said at the time that "Democracy means majority rule, not minority gridlock." Mr. Daschle hewed to a different principle on Sunday, when he told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Mr. Estrada and Judge Owen are "exceptions to the rule" that every nominee deserves an up or down vote in the Senate.

The OJ writer seemed to forget that this was Tom Daschle speaking.

Based on prior experience, any thinking person would probably be disappointed to see Daschle remain internally consistent with his arguments, regardless of his party’s power position in the Senate. It would be such a change in his basically inconstant character, a trait he shares with many others.

The proposed filibuster rule changes seem to continue this timorous approach to recognizing and acting on the fact that there’s a Republican majority in the Senate—and it’s the Republicans who appear to be the timid ones.

If the minority party succeeds in convincing or tricking the majority party to refrain from acting like the majority, therefore, I can’t really blame the minority.

May 12, 2003
You assassinate a few leaders, fire off a couple mortar attacks at some others, and all of a sudden somebody thinks you’re a terrorist organization.  What’s up with that?

Sometimes you can only marvel at how some folks can be so morally obtuse.

Reading between the lines of a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued last Friday, it looks like the appellate panel shares this sense of wonder.

The Secretary of State has the power to declare certain qualifying entities as “foreign terrorist organizations.” This declaration carries with it some serious consequences, such as blocking access to U.S. financial institutions, criminalizing any support given to the organization, and denying entrance into the United States to any of the organization’s representatives.

On at least three occasions, 1997, 1999, and 2001, the Secretary made just such a determination about The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). In so doing the Secretary relied upon both classified and non-classified information, as permitted under the statutory and administrative scheme that applied to this process.

PMOI appealed these designations to the DC Circuit. The primary basis for the appeal centered on the fact that classified information was part of the decisional mix used by the Secretary, and that the Iranians had no ability to access the information and no right to respond to it.

If the terrorist designations were based solely upon the classified record, perhaps the courts would have been faced with some interesting separation of powers issues.

In this case, however, PMOI had been given access to the unclassified record, and in fact contributed to it with its own submissions to the Secretary. As the Circuit Court found, there was more than enough damning information in the unclassified record to convert any legal quibbles about the classified documents into harmless error at best:

By statutory definition, "terrorist activity" ... involves any of the following: ...

(III) A violent attack upon an internationally protected person (as defined in section 1116(b)(4) of Title 18) or upon the liberty of such a person.

(IV) An assassination.

(V) The use of any … explosive or firearm (other than for mere personal monetary gain), with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property…[citation omitted].

By its own admission, the PMOI has

(1) attacked with mortars the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor's Office; (2) assassinated a former Iranian prosecutor and killed his security guards; (3) killed the Deputy Chief of the Iranian Joint Staff Command, who was the personal military adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei; (4) attacked with mortars the Iranian Central Command Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Defense Industries Organization in Tehran; (5) attacked and targeted with mortars the offices of the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, and of the head of the State Exigencies Council; (6) attacked with mortars the central headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards; (7) attacked with mortars two Revolutionary Guards Corps headquarters; and (8) attacked the headquarters of the Iranian State Security Forces in Tehran.

Were there no classified information in the file, we could hardly find that the Secretary's determination that the Petitioner engaged in terrorist activities is "lacking substantial support in the administrative record taken as a whole," even without repairing to the "classified information submitted to the court." 8 U.S.C. § 1189(b)(3)(D).

The civil appeal by these unambiguously uncivil litigants was therefore dismissed.

To be blunt, on this record it’s a mystery to me how the Iranians thought they could win this appeal in the first place.

May 11, 2003
A local variation on the Lake Wobegon effect

We're all a little sleepy this morning.

We were up late watching the promenade.

Like hundreds if not thousands of small towns throughout much of the country, around here the annual high school prom is a highly popular social event, and not just for the kids attending it.

Hundreds of folks gathered outside the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center to see each couple being announced, walking down a carefully prepared path, and smiling through a gauntlet of flash photography, cheers, and occasional hoots of laughter.

The promenade shows off the girls in their stunning outfits, all looking at least 25. The boys, sometimes also dressed in stunning ensembles, but usually in fairly conservative tuxes, tend to look not much older than 15.

There are no ugly kids at the Cape Henlopen prom.

Instead, all of them are smart, good-looking, and well above average, a slight variation on the Lake Wobegon effect.

At least, that's how the community treats them during the promenade.

Did I mention we love living here?

Hundreds of parents and friends gathered outside Rehoboth Convention Center to watch the 2003 Cape Henlopen High promenade.


Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2003