by Justice William W. Bedsworth
The dateline was Brussels. I read anything with a Brussels dateline. Eternal vigilance is the price of making sure they never palm off anything as awful as those danged sprouts on us again.
The story from Brussels was that the European Court of Justice1 had ruled that contract bridge is not a sport.
This was their actual holding. This wasn’t an aside. This wasn’t something they agreed upon after a few beers while watching the soccer match. This was an actual case in an actual court of law . . . or, in this case, an actual court of justice.
I don’t think there’s anything surprising about this ruling. Bridge is clearly not a sport. It’s an addiction.
I learned this in college. I’d been raised on five-card draw and seven-card stud. Texas Hold ‘Em, today’s most popular poker form, was a game we only played when it was 1:00 a.m. and half the table was drunk off their . . . donkeys.2
But poker cannot be played in any meaningful way without money being involved, and none of my college friends had money. So a couple of guys in the dorm taught me to play bridge—thereby lowering my GPA a half-point a semester.
When you’re eighteen and someone says, “We need a fourth. Are you actually going to your Chaucer class this morning?” it’s not so much a question as an opportunity.
And once you’ve skipped Chaucer . . . well, what’s one Russian class more or less? The two are equally indecipherable.
Between baseball practices and student lounge bridge “tournaments,” my academic survival can be attributed only to divine intervention. I had a good time in college, and if the International Court of Justice had declared bridge to be a sport, I could have laid claim to having been a two-sport athlete.
But they didn’t. Unlike the tax authorities of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, all of which treated bridge as a sport for tax purposes, the ICJ aligned itself—and therefore the EU—with the British, Swedish, and Irish in saying that “sports must have a significant element of physical activity.”3
I felt sorry for the International Court of Justice. “Whether bridge is a sport” is not the kind of issue they signed up for. Nobody goes to the International Court of Justice thinking, “Alright, gonna straighten out that whole bridge/sport thing; that’ll be a legacy to be proud of.”
You just know some of the people tasked with deciding this would have found it difficult to adequately describe their lack of interest in bridge. I’m sure international courts of justice are never bored to the point of gnawing tree bark, but the combination of bridge and tax law must at least have risen to the level of rheumatoid ennui.4
So I said to my wife: “These poor guys. You think you’re going to be deciding treaty rights and disputes between nations and instead you find yourself trying to calculate the caloric expenditure of a three no-trump bid.”
I wasn’t done.
“It’s the same thing I always thought would drive me crazy about being a legislator,” I said. “You go in thinking you’re going to rebuild the infrastructure and save the environment, and instead you get fifty calls from your constituents wanting you to pass a law requiring electrified fencing around llama ranches . . . or the Unified Amalgamated Avocado Consumers Union wants you to require development of a pit-free avocado by 2020.
“Or one of your fellow legislators calls you to ask support for a bill naming the California valley quail (Lophortyx californica) the official bird and avifaunal emblem of the state.5
“You’d end up spending your entire term working on stuff you know nothing about and hadn’t previously given a thought to. It’d drive me stark, staring bonkers.”
Kelly just looked at me across the breakfast table. She’s grown accustomed to these periodic outbursts. You should hear me hold forth on instant replay or beets in my salad or superheroes movies or . . . well, never mind. Suffice it to say Kelly’s convinced we’re just a few weeks away from someone attaching the word “Syndrome” to my name.
So instead of worrying that I was having some kind of a stroke, she merely looked at me over her newspaper and said, “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, seriously. That would drive me crazy, having to learn about some new thing every week that you never cared about before and you’re never going to deal with again.”
“Sweetie Pie,” (here she paused and gave me her best “Don’t worry, your dog will turn up” look) “that’s your job. You’ve been doing exactly that for twenty-one years.”
I looked at her, looked down at my eggs, looked back at her, looked down and contemplated my muffin for a moment, and said, “Hmm.”6
She’s right, of course. She’s right disconcertingly often. I have a pair of socks that say, “Let her win; she’s probably right anyway.” I should have eight pairs.7
I say again: she was right. We don’t get to choose our cases here on Mt. Olympus. We take whatever comes down the pike. And the pike gets a lot of traffic.
Shortly after I came to the court, I wrote a case called Wright v. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company et al. It involved a putative conflict between Anaheim Municipal Code Section 6.70.010 and the Federal Noise Control Act (42 U.S.C. 4916, et seq.).
Okay, I had no idea there was any such thing as the Federal Noise Control Act. And while I was vaguely aware of the Anaheim Municipal Code,8 I will walk barefoot through snow to avoid any statute whose number includes three periods. So this should have been every bit as distressing for me as the ICJ’s contract bridge/tax law jambalaya.
But somehow it wasn’t.
In another case, I wrote:
At first blush, the statutes seem impenetrable. Reading them is hard, writing about them arduous, reading about them probably downright painful. . . . As Alfred North Whitehead wrote of rationalism, the effort is, itself, “an adventure in the clarification of thought.”[Citation] The reader who is not inclined to such adventure and who is fortunate enough not to confront these statutes is probably well advised to forego this opinion.9
In other words, “Don’t read this unless you have to. I had to.”
In two decades of this, there have been lots of cases involving things I didn’t previously care about. So why did I not recognize that as my job description when I was commiserating with the ICJ? Why did my wife have to point it out to me?
Because, for me, it’s not about the law. It’s about the people.
Every case involves people. People with problems. The law is supposed to solve problems, resolve disputes, promote fairness . . . for people.
These aren’t logic puzzles. These aren’t “adventures in the clarification of thought.” They aren’t even challenging legal conundrums. First and foremost, these are cases involving people who have problems. And I have been entrusted with the task of applying the law to their problems.
So I didn’t have a case involving the Anaheim Municipal Code and the Federal Noise Control Act; I had a case involving a lady who was being driven around the bend by noise from trains near her house.
I didn’t have an imbroglio over the denotations and connotations of Penal Code Sections 12021 and 12021.1; I had a case in which I had to help figure out who the legislature trusted to carry firearms.
That’s why I didn’t immediately identify with the ICJ—because I didn’t have those people—those bridge players and tax officials—before me.
Cases don’t come to our court “on the wings of a snow white dove.”10 They’re brought to us by people.
Every issue that involves something we never cared about before and may try never to think about again involves real people and the opportunity to see that they are treated in a way the law considers fair. That’s a privilege.
The ICJ and I are privileged to get those opportunities.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.