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February 2017 - Drop-Down Menu

by Richard W. Millar, Jr.

I grew up in the golden age of radio. I made my own crystal set with the help of Heathkit. (For the uninitiated, a crystal set is the most basic form of radio, not a meth lab.) Later, I made my own Heathkit full-fledged radio festooned with tubes. Fat tubes, skinny tubes, bulbous tubes–a veritable forest of tubes, all of which formed the basis of the late Phil Harris’s famous insult: “he has a face like the back of a radio.”

My Heathkit radio was ultimately replaced with one of the first clock radios. It was a maroon Crosley with a large circular clock on one side and an equally large circular dial on the other, like the eyes of a large owl. I could go to sleep listening, secure in the knowledge that it would turn itself off in an hour.

There were no such things as computers. In 1951, the UNIVAC “automatic computer” weighed thirteen tons and cost about $1.5 million, making it, shall we say, impractical for the average person.

The point of all this, which I am sure you were wondering about, is that, for our generation, computers came late in the game and presented (and still present) learning challenges that are different from those who were raised with the host of tech devices that exist today. But learn we must, and we do. I have an office computer with dual screens that remind me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I have a large Apple at home that I call the “big Mac,” which would probably get me in trouble with McDonalds’ trademark attorneys if they knew. I have an iPad, an iPhone, and an iWatch. Do I know what all these devices can do? Hell no. Almost daily I find that they can do something I had no clue about.

But I have bought things online, have dealt with court websites, and have used drop-down menus. That apparently puts me ahead of some people, including judges.

Or at least one judge.

First, a digression. As I have written before, much of my material has come from Cook County, Illinois and the entire State of Texas. I am finding, however, that Louisiana is fast becoming Miss Runner Up.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Minaldi of the Lake Charles Division of the Western District of Louisiana presided over a federal prosecution of one Adley Leo Dyson, Jr., who was charged with making false statements to HUD to get federal money for property purportedly destroyed by Hurricane Rita. His application was made using a computer.

The trial got off to an inauspicious start. During jury selection, none of the prospective jurors were instructed about their duties, nor were they asked about their eligibility to serve, nor told not to discuss the case. Both sides brought this to the attention of the court. To which the court said: “You know, it is so seldom that we have jury trials here. I forget. Okay. I forget, but I rely on you to remember.”

Apparently, the vanishing jury trials are not only a problem of lawyer training, but I digress.

The real problem began on the second day when one Cynthia Hawkins took the stand to explain the online application process.

Q: Now to be clear to the jury, is it your job to determine eligibility?

A: No. The program has its own definition of eligibility, and that’s what we went by.

Q: But if someone tells you something, some extra details, for example, that can’t be answered through a drop-down box, how would you reflect that on the application?

THE COURT: What does that mean, “a drop-down box”?

There was some further effort to explain which went like this:

Q. . . . that’s a drop-down menu selection?

Yes, it is.

THE COURT: I have no idea what that means. If I don’t understand it . . .

THE WITNESS: A drop-down.---

THE COURT: No offense, but if I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody else is going to understand it. I have been to law school. I have been doing this for thirty years. I have no idea what y’all are talking about.

When it was time for the lunch break, the court told the lawyers to “get your act together. Okay. I have no idea what’s going on here.”

The next line in the transcript says it all: “(Recess is taken. Court was not resumed.)”

Judge Minaldi was removed from the case and a new judge declared a mistrial.

So here’s a tip:

If things aren’t going well, call a witness, any witness, and start asking about drop-down menus.

Richard W. Millar, Jr. is a member of the firm of Friedman Stroffe & Gerard, P.C. in Newport Beach. He can be reached at rmillar@fsglawyers.com.