Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- December 8-14, 2002

rwbstripe.gif (1115 bytes)
This page includes posts from December 8-14, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

December 14, 2002
At least one token Claude

Our friends the headline writers for the Associated Press came through once again with a Claude-worthy submission today:

Every Facet of New York City Life Could Be Affected by a Transit Strike

This banner doesn't exactly tempt readers with its novelty, now does it?

The story itself, by AP Writer Ula Ilnytzky, is a well-done round-up of the many ways New York City’s commercial existence would be deeply harmed if the transit workers violate the recent court order to refrain from withholding their services.

It is well worth remembering how fragile the city’s recovery has been since September 11, and this controversy won’t help. Even the threat of the strike has probably already convinced many would-be tourists to avoid the risk of being caught in Manhattan without an easy way off the island.

The report outlined the basic bargaining positions thus far:

The union is seeking 6 percent annual raises over three years. The MTA, facing a $1 billion-dollar deficit and contemplating a fare increase, is offering no raise the first year and possible raises the following two years tied to productivity increases.

Looks to me like there’s a middle ground in there both sides could reach with a little help from the State, a significant participant in MTA’s overall financial support.

Note: Of course there’s a pun in this post’s title. Some standards are well worth maintaining.

Link to Tampa Bay Online via Drudge Report.

December 14, 2002
Second Thoughts

After listening to portions of Senator Lott's statements at his press conference yesterday, and reading about it online, I considered writing a post comparing Senator Lott to Foghorn Leghorn.

I decided that might be unfair--to Foghorn Leghorn.

After all, even that famous rooster would have found a clue in his barnyard by now, after a week's gone by.

The Senator is obviously still searching.

The sad fact is that Lott's potential status as the next Senate Majority Leader could be yet another proof of an old aphorism:

When good people are unwilling to serve their fellow citizens, other types* will jump at the chance.

Foghorn, thinking

Lott, not

*The description for those other types is actually a bit more colorful in the original, but this is a family-friendly site.

December 13, 2002
Charity begins at home--for the D.C. Arts Commission, at least.


Karlyn Barker of the Washington Post wrote a story about the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities that might make some folks a bit more careful about their future dealings with the agency.

Earlier this year the Commission sponsored the popular Party Animals sculpture exhibits that graced the District with well-done, creative, and frequently amusing donkey and elephant statuary.

The overall plan for the exhibits included auctioning off most of the statues to raise money for other arts programs.

The only problem is that the Commission managed to finagle the auction so that the agency won the bids for nine specific statues.

To make things even more interesting, the Commission didn’t actually pay for the artwork they acquired during the auction.

They had their reasons, as they viewed the situation:

"We selected some to keep to maintain a legacy and to put in places that might normally not be able to participate in the auction," [Executive Director Anthony] Gittens said. "The way to do this was for the arts commission to place a bid. . . . The winning bids were our bids."

Not counting the Commission’s bogus bids, the rest of the statues brought in over $925,000 in live and online bidding. One elephant brought in $12,500.

Barker tracked down one professional auctioneer who explained the problem:

Virginia Weschler, executive vice president of the Adam A. Weschler & Sons auction house in the District, said charity auctions "are always goofy, but these are people who didn't understand the ramifications" of what they did.

"They should never have offered them if they had no intention of selling them," she said.

In the commercial world, Weschler said, "this would be an act of fraud." But charity auctions, she said, "fall outside the law" because they are not licensed. Still, "it's terribly unfair, and morally and ethically wrong. . . . They've probably ruined their chances of ever doing a similar fundraiser."

For some reason, the Commission’s statuary set-asides did not include one of the more famous elephant sculptures in the series.

Perhaps it brought up bad memories.

I refer, of course, to the PETA-sponsored elephant I wrote about last August.

In stark contrast to the Commission’s stated goal of promoting “fun,” the PETA pachyderm aimed at creating a very different set of emotions. It showed

a teary-eyed elephant with his right front leg chained.

He wears a blanket reading, "The CIRCUS is Coming, See SHACKLES – BULL HOOKS – LONELINESS All Under The 'Big Top.'"

A U.S. District Court judge ordered that the “Ella PhantzPeril” statue had to be accepted by the Commission, because at least two other accepted entrants had also conveyed messages deemed inconsistent with the Commission’s stated preferences. 

At the auction, however, the PETA statue earned only a comparatively modest $2,950

I talked to a Commission staffer today.  It seems that a person affiliated with PETA was the successful bidder. 

I can’t say I’m deeply shocked at either the purchase price or the apparent purchaser.

Then again, maybe I just have a different sense of FUN than some other folks.

Note: For yet another pleasant little PETA story, click here.

December 12, 2002
Somebody needs to watch The Christmas Story again.

Nineteen years ago we went to the movies and saw The Christmas Story for the first time.

We liked it so much we went back to see it again soon after, this time with my parents. They loved it, too.

Ever since then, I’ve always managed to take a break or two during the holiday season to watch it again. Sometimes I only see bits of it, but one of my favorite parts is Ralphie’s scene with the Department Store Santa:

Ralphie: I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!

Santa: You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Based on a decision this week by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, it looks like someone should watch this movie classic at least one more time.

In early February 2001, Randy Orr (definitely not Ralphie’s brother, BTW) showed himself to be a bold brazen article, as the nuns at my parochial school used to say.

He held up a credit union in Fairview, Pennsylvania all by himself, and initially escaped with $65,468.00.

Here is how the court described the armed robbery:

After entering the bank, Orr told the manager to kneel, face the wall, and put her hands on her head. He then held his gun to the head of the assistant manager and directed her to empty a metal cash box into a garbage bag.

Thanks to a friend of Orr’s who tipped off the investigators, he was caught. Orr pled guilty to using a dangerous weapon in connection with bank robbery, and received an enhanced sentence of 50 months' imprisonment.

On appeal, Orr challenged the increased prison time, arguing that

(1) the [dismantled] pellet gun he used in the robbery was not a "dangerous weapon," and (2) he had not "otherwise used" but had merely"brandished" the gun….

The Court didn’t think much of these arguments.

The unanimous panel first dealt with the claim that the pellet gun was not such a big deal:

a dismantled pellet gun is a dangerous weapon in its own right. In this connection, the government argues that even the frame of the pellet gun could inflict serious injury if wielded as a weapon….We agree and hold that a dismantled pellet gun which could be used as a bludgeon is a "dangerous weapon"….

Then the court dismissed the notion that Orr had merely “brandished” his weapon, justifying something less than the punishment he received:

"Brandished" means that "all or part of the weapon was displayed, or the presence of the weapon was otherwise made known to another person, in order to intimidate that person, regardless of whether the weapon was directly visible to that person." [citation omitted.] "Otherwise used" means that the conduct "did not amount to the discharge of a firearm but was more than brandishing, displaying, or possessing a firearm or other dangerous weapon." [citation omitted.]….

[T]he District Court correctly found that pointing a gun at the head of the assistant manager and ordering her to empty money into a garbage bag was a "specific threat" directed at her and was precisely the type of conduct which satisfies the "otherwise used" requirement.

Considering the facts of this case, and the timing of the opinion’s release, it would have been nice to see the Third Circuit also quote the critical passages from The Christmas Story, when discussing the dangerous qualities of pellet guns.

Maybe they’ll add a footnote later.

December 12, 2002
The Blogger's Prayer

The other day the Man Without Qualities kindly posted a version of the St. Thomas More Prayer.

The British martyr is considered the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. There are several local chapters of the St. Thomas More Society in the United States, some of whom have their own websites.

Reading the More prayer was inspirational:

The Blogger's Prayer

Lord, grant that I may be graceful in my writing, both in tone and intent.
Help me avoid snap judgments of other's motives, as I work to keep untainted my own motivations for writing.
Let me stay focused on the merits of an argument, and keep me from resorting to ad hominem attacks.
Give me the strength to be candid with my readers, while respecting the privacy of those whose words and deeds inspire my writing.
Sit with me at my computer, and help me understand what others seek to say.
Read with me online, and be by my side as I write.


December 11, 2002
When your nine pounds of methamphetamine absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, don’t be surprised if someone takes notice.*

This week the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the federal drug law conviction of Juan Mederos Gomez, against Fourth Amendment claims relating to how the government discovered he was to receive over nine pounds of methamphetamine.

The legal issues in the case were fairly routine as these cases go. On the other hand, the government’s drug interdiction efforts that led to the seizure of that startling amount of speed were pretty interesting.

Daniel Medrano is a long-time postal inspector in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a recognized “prohibited mailings narcotics specialist”.

In late April 2001, ten national guardsmen joined Medrano and 39 other postal inspectors at the United States Postal Service Express Mail hub in Indianapolis. The mail pieces moved along a conveyor belt during the sorting and transfer operation, which continued past 2 a.m.

One Express Mail package, marked for “next-day by noon” delivery that day to Minneapolis, attracted just enough attention to cause an inspector to bring it to Medrano, standing about 20 yards away.

Here’s why this package also made Medrano suspicious, based on his training and experience:

  • Express Mail next-day noon delivery is preferred by those sending contraband “because it is reliable and trackable, and obviously faster.”
  • The package’s size and weight—fourteen inches square and nearly twelve pounds—was “unusually large for person-to-person mail, as the hand-written label indicated it was.” Ninety-five per cent of Express Mail is business-related, and personal Express Mail packages are usually much smaller. In contrast, “in Medrano’s experience, illegal drugs are often sent through the mail enclosed in larger items.”
  • The sender paid cash for the $37.55 Express Mail postage charge.
  • The Friday send/Saturday receive arrangement itself was a factor. Medrano believes that “drug dealers speculated that fewer drug interdiction efforts were being conducted on weekends.”
  • The package came from LaBrea, California, “a known source city” for illegal drugs.
  • The package was heavily taped, a possible “attempt to thwart a drug-detection dog.”
  • A “FRAGILE” stamp on the package, combined with the common surname for sender and receiver, “reflected an attempt to ‘legitimize’ the package.” The sender also misspelled the name Anthony, leading Medrano to suspect that was “perhaps not the sender’s true name.”

Medrano detained the package, based on these initial impressions. A few hours later, he contacted the mail carriers in both LaBrea and Minneapolis who handled the routes at the sender and receiver addresses. They confirmed that the addresses were legitimate, but that the names didn’t match the addresses.

At that point, the inspectors brought in a drug-detection dog named Wendy. She “alerted” to the package. (The dogs also “alerted” to 29 other packages out of the thirty-five selected for closer inspection during that one shift.)

After the alert, Medrano prepared a search warrant application, and successfully obtained a U.S. Magistrate’s authorization early Saturday evening.

The inspectors then opened the package, and found the methamphetamine. They arranged for a controlled delivery to Gomez on Monday, April 30, who was then arrested.

Gomez’ legal challenge centered on whether Medrano had enough reasonable suspicion to detain the package and take the time to contact the mail carriers in California and Minnesota. On this record, neither the District nor the Eighth Circuit had much difficulty in upholding the reasonableness of the government’s crime detection efforts.

In fact, the appellate court was pretty blunt about it:

The large, heavily-taped Express Mail package, voluntarily deposited in the mail in California for delivery by the USPS hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, virtually begged for the attention of a postal inspector.

And that’s not a bad thing; at least, not when it involves over nine pounds of methamphetamine.

*An homage, of sorts, to our friends at FedEx.

December 11, 2002
That explains why it sounded so natural

Ana Radelat and Jon Frandsen of the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger helped show why Senator Lott's now-infamous remarks last week sounded so natural when captured on film by C-Span.

He said it before.

Or at least, something so similar that it sounded completely unforced a few days ago.

According to the Mississippi newspaper, Thurmond and Lott addressed the crowd at a November 1980 political rally:

After Thurmond spoke against federal pre-emption of state laws, Lott told the more than 1,000 people present, "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."

According to the Washington Post, one of Senator Lott's spokesmen offered the following explanation:

"Clearly, Senator Lott was expressing his support for Ronald Reagan's policies of smaller government and fiscal responsibility."

Somehow I doubt that's so clear a statement. At least, that it's a clear statement as that spokesman described it. In fact, given the 1948 Dixiecrat platform to which Senator Lott implicitly referred, it's perfectly understandable how others might feel it conveys certain other sentiments, not nearly so neutral in tone.

As my father says when he's, shall we say, a bit exasperated, "Jesus H. Priest!"

December 10, 2002
Guessing correctly about sovereignty

Last April I wrote about an aspect of our federal structure that even Judge Stephen Reinhardt might agree fits one of the original understandings of the phrase.

The U.S. Supreme Court is handling a lawsuit brought under its original jurisdiction, between the State of Maryland and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

From the Maryland perspective, it involves a fight against sprawl. From the Virginia perspective, it involves a fight over state's attempt to provide critical public services. 

What’s unusual is that Maryland tried to block development in Virginia, by claiming the right to force a Virginia water agency to obtain a Maryland permit to build a new water intake system in the middle of the Potomac River.

Maryland eventually granted this permit, but the case continued because of the certainty that the same issue would recur.

Here’s part of what I wrote in April:

[T]he 1632 Charter from King Charles I granted the entire river to Maryland. However, a 1785 compact between the two states gave Virginia residents the right to use the river and even build structures on it, as long as the improvements did not affect navigation….

Given the colonial-era understanding of the term "navigation," I believe that Virginia will eventually win this suit, as long as it can show that the intake pipe system presents no real hazard to the ability of maritime traffic to use the Potomac. Since any sane water system design would already take that into account, I really doubt that this $11 million project runs that risk.

Turns out I guessed correctly. The Washington Post reported today that Special Master Ralph Lancaster filed a report recommending that the Supreme Court rule in favor of Virginia.

Maryland now has an opportunity to file exceptions to the report, and final arguments may be heard before the Court this spring.

On the other hand, it’s pretty rare for Master recommendations to be overturned.

Lancaster’s report is 97 pages long, not counting the appendices. It is well worth reading, both for those interested in colonial-era history and those interested in the ongoing debate over development in the Washington metropolitan area.

I spoke with Stuart Raphael, the attorney who handled the case for Virginia. He also suggested I read Virginia's Brief on the Merits of Maryland's Remaining Claims.

The passages in the Brief beginning at page 46 should be illuminating for those few innocent folks who may continue to believe that environmental disputes are always fought on the merits.

For example:

… Maryland stipulated that the … offshore intake would not adversely impact any boating interests. It stipulated that the intake would not adversely affect Potomac River fisheries. It also stipulated that Maryland’s right to issue a Section 401 Water Quality Certification, pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act, had been waived by operation of law, because no decision had been rendered in more than a year from the date of the application. [footnotes omitted]…

[The] Final Decision …concluded: “The record establishes that the proposed intake is likely to provide better quality raw water, which will reduce the need for treatment to remove solids and thereby reduce the risk of human error in the treatment process. The record further indicates that with minimum adverse impacts to the river, the proposed intake will lower the risk from waterborne pathogens, disinfection byproducts, oil spills and other contaminants, reduce blockages of the intake from ice, leaves and grass and reduce the Authority’s treatment costs.”

…On November 7, 2000, Governor Glendening’s office issued a press release maintaining that “Maryland continues to vigorously object to the issuance of a permit for the proposed intake pipe.” The press release stated that the Governor remained concerned that the offshore intake project would cause “irreparable environmental damage” in the form of urban “sprawl.” The claim that urban “sprawl” would result from the project had not been urged by [Maryland] in the contested case proceeding itself.

I wonder if the new Democratic (VA) and Republican (MD) governors will feel quite the same way about this case as their predecessors did, considering the switch in party affiliation experienced in both administrations.

December 10, 2002
Trent-chant remarks

Two more links worth reading about Trent Lott, from decidedly different perspectives:

Max Sawicky doesn't wake up every day wondering out loud why he should go on living, in stark contrast to some of his fellow leftists. His remarks about Lott won't please Republicans by any means, but also remind Democrats to maintain a sense of proportion about their own party's failings in race relations.

Robert George wrote a great piece about why Lott shouldn't serve as the next Majority Leader, pointing to several examples from the past in addition to this latest idiotic fiasco, made worse by the completely inadequate non-apology apology. George's essay and his prior work on the Republican National Committee may help convince wavering Republican Senators to find a better man (or woman) to lead the next session.

December 9, 2002
In loco parentis meets loco parents

Just in time for this semester’s college finals, the Associated Press reported today on a disturbing new trend:

Professors Troubled by Parents Complaining on Behalf of College Students

Reporter Steve Giegerich described several examples of parent/professor interaction that I simply can’t imagine would have occurred when I was an undergraduate a few decades ago:

[A]ngry parents … complain about their children's grades.

Faculty members also say moms and dads sometimes pressure officials to register students in mandatory courses that are filled to capacity and question the intent of classroom assignments….

A parent last month asked a Western Washington instructor if her son could reschedule an exam because it conflicted with a planned family vacation…. The request was denied.

One sociology professor at Louisiana Tech told Giegerich that he 

wants parents to feel comfortable contacting him, but said he drew the line recently when a mother wanted to tape record a discussion about her son.

Other professors are a bit less diplomatic in their assessment:

"They don't realize that sometimes they just have to let little Johnny stumble and make his own mistakes and learn from them," said Teresa Sherwood, assistant chair of the mathematics department at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

"They just have a hard time letting go."

A few instructors also pointed to the high cost of college education, and the natural interest of parents in making sure their “investment” is worth it.

I discussed this story tonight with our older daughter, a sophomore who’s in the middle of her fall semester finals this week. She was as surprised as I was.

She has absolutely no interest in any similar parental intervention.

That’s my girl.

December 8, 2002
I could have told him it wouldn't work

Once upon a time, I did something that annoyed my wife.

She let me know she was angry about it.

Unfortunately, I was feeling a bit too righteous about what I'd done, and so I tried to be a bit too clever in my response.

In my most sincere voice, I said, "I'm sorry you got upset."

Using some extremely direct language, she then made sure I understood that she understood that what I said was not really an apology.

Lesson learned.

Yesterday, Radio Free Europe posted a story with this headline:

Hussein 'Apologizes' To Kuwaitis

I understood immediately what the caption writer intended by using the quotation marks. The story carried the headline's intent even further:

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf read a statement on state television from the president saying: "we apologize to God for any deed that angered him in the past, which we might not have known of and is blamed on us." He said: "and on this basis we also apologize to you," the Kuwaitis.

On the television news last night, I watched the Kuwaiti spokesman react to this non-apology apology in much the same way that my wife did. His language was a bit more diplomatic, however.

I could have told Hussein it wouldn't work.

December 8, 2002
New Toy

My wife gave me a digital camera for my birthday.

Here's one of the first pictures, taken in our living room:

At least one blogger should like it.

December 8, 2002
Illusions of Indispensability

We are none of us indispensable.

At least two of our country's current leaders need to be reminded of that fact--Trent Lott and Bernard Law.

Senator Lott's recent remarks about the opportunity the country allegedly missed with the Dixiecrats' loss in in the 1948 presidential election shows that he has no business being the Senate Majority Leader in the next Congress.

Virginia Postrel's December 7 post about Lott should be required reading in every newsroom with any dealings with him.

I don't care if his people or others say he was just kidding. First, the context in which he said it doesn't fit with any actual joke-telling intentions. Second, there really are some things you just don't joke about; at least, not if you're in a leadership position and want to be taken seriously in any other context.

To some extent, the latest revelations about the Boston Archdiocese simply pile on the already massive amount of evidence of literally sinful mismanagement by Cardinal Law. In stark contrast to the usual deference shown cardinals by priests, a Boston group of clerics has finally worked up enough courage to call for Law's resignation.

Good. He should take their advice, and soon. Others can clean up the mess he made. His own efforts thus far have proven to be too tentative, too defensive, and too little.

For some folks, it's hard to imagine a world in which they are not among those in charge. They could use a little perspective.

It's a big world. It will not collapse if they're gone.


Contact Information:

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


Home Page
Table of Essays
Links to the Weekly Archives

Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.

That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.

© Frederick H. Schranck 2002