Current Affairs

Another Year of Lowering the Bar

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One of the few predictions one can make with certainty about 2020 is that it will be even more stupid and awful than 2019, which is saying something. There is, however, at least one potential bright spot, and that is the probability that I will finish my second book early in the year and find some way to get it into your hands, tablets, or whatever before the year is out.

Whether that will be a print or e-book, or both, remains to be seen. But it will be a compilation of selected events I have judged stupid enough to report on at some point during the past 15 years. Not the full reports, but summaries similar to those I put together for my “Year in Review” series for The Green Bag; you can see the 2016 version of that here, and a few carefully chosen examples from 2019 appear below.

While it would be fun to have all the words of Lowering the Bar in print, it would also be ridiculous, because at this point there are well over two million of those. The summary version alone is already over 300 pages and 100,000 words, for God’s sake. If anybody wants to buy a 20-volume set containing every word that’s appeared here, by all means, let me know. But it seems extremely likely that one volume will be more than enough.

So, please enjoy the following sample of things that actually happened during 2019, and I wish you good luck for 2020.

We’re all going to need it.


THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED DURING 2019

JANUARY

Jan. 1: In Oregon, a man sues Burger King for refusing to give him one free burger a week for life, a deal he claims to have struck with a manager after he was trapped in a restroom for an hour. Based on the expected cost of the burgers over time and the plaintiff’s life expectancy, the lawsuit demands just over $9,000. “We determined his life would last 72 years,” the man’s lawyer says, “which is about five years less than average based on his frequent consumption of cheeseburgers.”

FEBRUARY

Feb. 18: “CO2 has got a bad rap,” Montana state Rep. Joe Read says in a hearing on HB 418, a bill he introduced, which would declare that releasing “reasonable amounts” of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere officially has “no verifiable impacts on the environment.” If the bill passes, which it won’t [and it didn’t], it would of course have no effect outside Montana. It would have no real effect inside Montana, either, unlike carbon dioxide.

MARCH

Mar. 27: Utah’s governor signs SB 43 into law. Along with HB 40, which he signed two days earlier, the legislation means that sodomy, adultery, and fornication are no longer illegal in the state. Such laws were held unconstitutional in 2003, but as so often happens, they remained on the books in Utah, just waiting to cause trouble. A local news outlet says it found evidence that someone was arrested for adultery in 2018, though prosecutors apparently did not pursue that charge (presumably having learned that doing so would be unconstitutional).

APRIL

Apr. 1: Texas sources report that Harris County Judge Bill McLeod has accidentally resigned from office. McLeod, who planned to run for a seat on the state supreme court, posted about his plans online. Only then did he learn about Art. 16, section 65 of the Texas Constitution, which provides that if a public officer becomes a candidate or announces a candidacy for another office, that “shall constitute an automatic resignation” from the office he or she currently holds. McLeod was only three months into his four-year term when he accidentally resigned.

Apr. 29: In the Eastern District of Michigan, Senior U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman dismisses a complaint (or as he describes it, “a 136-page pile of papers”) on the grounds that it is “incomprehensible and serves no conceivable, legitimate legal purpose.” Which seems like a pretty solid reason to dismiss a complaint.

MAY

May 7: The leader of New Zealand’s opposition party is kicked out of Parliament (temporarily) for allegedly making a “barnyard noise” while the prime minister is speaking. “I made no such noise,” Simon Bridges responds, but it is unclear whether he is claiming to have made no noise at all or only that it was not a noise of the barnyard variety.

May 22: The company that owns the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky, which features a 500-foot-long re-creation of Noah’s Ark, files suit against several insurance carriers to recover $1 million in damages following a severe storm. If you are thinking this involves a claim that a re-creation of Noah’s Ark was damaged by heavy rain, you could not be more right. The damage was allegedly to the ground supporting the ark, not to the ark itself, but still.

JUNE

June 15: The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that Kerville Holness is hoping to void the purchase he made in a Broward County tax auction in March. Holness says he paid $9,100 for a duplex pictured on the county’s website, which would have been a real bargain. The county points out, however, that the actual property description shows that the only part for sale was the one-foot strip between the two driveways, not the two lots themselves. The strip apparently belonged to the subdivision’s developer originally, and it remains unclear why it was never folded into either of the two lots. Holness says the listing was deceptive, but officials say he is stuck with the deal.

JULY

July 17: A judge in Tasmania has ordered the Beerepoot family to pay more than $2 million in back taxes, rejecting their argument that they could not pay income tax because doing so is “against God’s will.” In his decision, the judge points out among other things that the family had been unable to cite any passage in the Bible supporting their argument that God does not want people to pay income tax.

AUGUST

Aug. 6: A lawsuit alleges that Wayne Newton and other parties “willfully, recklessly and deliberately chose not to closely supervise and/or contain or confine” Newton’s pet monkey, said conduct allegedly allowing said monkey to bite the plaintiff’s daughter during a 2017 visit. The monkey was allegedly kept on the premises of “Casa de Shenandoah,” Newton’s former home, which was turned into a tourist attraction and museum after Newton moved out in 2010. Newton releases a statement saying he severed all ties with the company that now owns the property in July 2017, three months prior to the alleged attack. The statement does not explain why Newton did not take the monkey with him when he moved out.

Aug. 30: California’s governor signs SB 192 into law, meaning that for the first time in almost 150 years, citizens can legally refuse to join a posse. Researchers say they believe the California Posse Comitatus Act of 1872, which made it a crime to refuse to join a posse if lawfully asked to do so by a state officer or judge, has not been used in over 50 years and so is no longer necessary. The only group that filed an argument opposing the repeal was the California State Sheriffs’ Assocation.

SEPTEMBER

Sept. 9: “My transgressions were well-intentioned but wrong,” says Illinois lawyer Jordan Margolis, just before being sentenced to three years in prison for stealing from about a dozen clients. Margolis used some of the money to pay expenses related to “Excuseman,” a superhero character he portrayed in advertisements for his practice. In the ads, “Excuseman” roamed the world seeking to punish (sue) wrongdoers who harmed someone but made excuses rather than face responsibility for their actions.

OCTOBER

Oct. 22: The BBC reports that six men have been convicted of attempted murder by a court in China, in a case that shows why delegating such crimes is rarely a good idea. The convicted defendants were (1) a man who hired a hitman to kill a business competitor, (2) the hitman he hired, (3) the hitman the first hitman hired instead of carrying out the job himself, (4) the hitman that hitman hired, (5) the hitman that hitman hired, and (6) the “final hitman,” who, instead of killing the intended victim, met with him and proposed they fake his death instead. The victim instead went to the police.

NOVEMBER

Nov. 6: The Iowa Court of Appeals affirms a lower court’s decision to dismiss a habeas application filed by Benjamin Schrieber, a convicted murderer serving life in prison. Schrieber was hospitalized for kidney failure in 2015, and claims he had to be resuscitated five times before he was stabilized. He argues that he necessarily completed his “life” sentence when he “momentarily died” at the hospital. The court rejects this, saying the outcome depends on Schrieber’s current status: he “is either alive, in which case he must remain in prison, or he is dead, in which case this appeal is moot.” Given that Schrieber personally signed the application, the court notes, it seems unlikely that he is currently dead.

DECEMBER

Dec. 3: U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter pleads guilty to one count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds, meaning (according to me) that he has effectively admitted to all 200 of the overt acts alleged in that count. And that means he has admitted that he illegally used at least $250 in campaign funds to fly a pet rabbit across the country as part of a family vacation. Prosecutors also alleged that Hunter used campaign funds to pay for certain activities with a woman identified as “Individual 14,” as well as Female Individuals 15–18, none of whom were his wife (and co-defendant) Margaret Hunter. Coincidentally, perhaps, Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty earlier this year and agreed to testify against her husband.

Dec. 31: Against all odds, both the United States and Lowering the Bar have survived for yet another year (roughly speaking, the 243rd and 15th respectively). With any luck, both will stagger on for at least a few more.