by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I am not cut out to be an administrator. I have neither talent for, nor interest in, things administrative.
This admission has caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Governor’s Office, since it means they’ll have to choose someone else for the Presiding Judge gig at our court – and Tommy Lasorda has already turned them down.
But true’s true, and I’m just not the guy.
They tried it in the District Attorney’s Office. They put me in charge of Writs and Appeals. It made no sense to me at all. I’d been very successful as an appellate lawyer1, but there was no real reason to think that would translate into managerial skills. “Beds, you’ve turned out to be our best carpenter, so we’re going to make a plumber out of you.”
I managed not to drive the ship into the rocks for the five years I was in charge. None of my employees jumped off a bridge, and the Fourth Amendment was still standing when I left. But I was forever writing briefs at 2:00 a.m. because I had not seen a deadline coming, and being assigned as my secretary was pretty much the equivalent of being elected Sisyphus.
The whole administrative thing is a mystery to me. Justice O’Leary understands it; Justice Manoukian understands it2; Fybel and Ikola understand it3. Me and Rylaarsdam don’t understand it; we would seriously consider retiring if they made us do it.4
The job just requires skills I don’t have.5 Exhibit A: I have a life-sized papier mâché piñata in my chambers. (There was a guy at the swap meet who would make you a piñata of anything for $50; Kelly couldn’t resist.) Perfect replica, right down to the beard, cowboy boots, silver-framed glasses, and six-pack abs.6
I thought I had the perfect idea: We get piñatas made of all the judges on our court. Then, after oral arguments, we hang ‘em up outside the courtroom and charge the attorneys $100 to whack ‘em with a stick. I figured we’d be the only court in the system that would make money.
I couldn’t get a single vote for my idea.
This is nothing new. I often can’t get another vote for my opinions. But being told I’ve moved from the majority to the dissent only involves two rejections. This was a unanimous, court-wide repudiation. As far as I know, it was the only time our court has ever sat en banc, and I lost 7-1.
That’s the kind of idea that has convinced most people I’m more suited to be Louis than Richelieu.
And I’m fine with that. There are lots of things I can’t do, and most of them don’t bother me a bit. I just don’t do them.7
But this is an insight that seems to have escaped more people than I thought. Apparently there are people who are no good at all at administering things who have chosen, nonetheless, to do just that. And some of them are in the Department of Homeland Security.
These people have chosen to fight against terrorism in western Michigan with snow cone machines. Yep, that’s what it says. Snow cone machines.
And, since even the burliest of us could not manage to take out more than one Al Qaeda operative by hurling a snow cone machine at him8, they must be planning to fight terrorism with the snow cones themselves.
I learned this from the Greenville, Michigan Daily News. Well, actually, I learned it from my friend Kevin Underhill, whose Lowering the Bar website is a lot funnier than I am a lot more often, but I verified it through the Daily News. According to the Daily News, 13 counties in western Michigan have received $900 Arctic Blast Paragon Snow Cone Machines from the Homeland Security Department.
That means someone – probably several someones – in charge of administering programs to protect the United States of America from terrorists thought snow cones were the weapon of choice.
And chose them.
For $900 a pop. Or a cone.
Now I can understand the urgent need to protect the borders of western Michigan. Some of those counties abut Lake Michigan, which puts them perilously close to the terrorist hotbeds of Wisconsin.
And it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how desperately Al Qaeda wants to take out urban centers like Muskegon, Norton Shores, and Fennville. Arming our troops with Homeland Security mechanized snow will give them a huge advantage over invaders having to stop every few feet to scoop up their own natural, unweaponized snow.
But Montcalm County, the home of the Greenville Daily News and a recipient of one of the anti-terrorist snow cone machines, is pretty close to the middle of the state. Terrorists floating across from Wisconsin would have to abandon their zodiacs and hike across two other counties to get to Montcalm. By that time, partisans with government-issue snow cones should have decimated their ranks to the point that maybe it wasn’t necessary to arm Montcalm with the Arctic Blast Paragon 6133310. Maybe a coupla popsicles woulda done it.
But the Daily News says that, “according to The Michigan Homeland Security Grant Program’s Allowable Cost Justification document, dated May 9, 2011, the snow cone machines can make ice to prevent heat-related illnesses during emergencies, treat injuries, and provide snow cones as an outreach at promotional events.”
See, this is why I’m not cut out for administration. I never would have thought of the need to cool down our troops in those miserable western Michigan desert conditions. It can get up to ninety in Kalamazoo in the summer, and when our soldiers come back from the front with sunburns and strained ligaments, having ice handy will doubtless make us a two-touchdown favorite.
But my favorite justification is the “outreach” one. As Underhill points out, there were two ways Homeland Security could have responded to this fiasco. One was to admit it was a snafu and move on. That’s the one you or I would have chosen.
The other was to dig in, crank up the Paragon Arctic Blast Model 6133310’s and the spinmasters and flacks, and fight to the death. Of course they chose the latter.
Outreach? Really? That’s your fallback position?
We’re gonna have square dances and skateboard tournaments and get people interested in fighting terrorism by luring them to these events with the prospect of snow cones? The snow cone machines are meant to attract possible volunteers to fight against the terrorists?
Outreach! Of course! “Come learn the dangers of phosgene gas, nuclear dirty bombs, and poison in the water supply, while enjoying a frosty snow cone!” Hell, I’d be in a trench in Afghanistan myself if I’d known snow cones were available.
As Jon Stewart pointed out9, outreach is not a rational explanation here. Are we really going to reach out to these folks and say, “We’re asking you to risk your life – risk death or serious injury – for your country. That might not be something that interests you, but once you find out we’re gonna throw in a snow cone . . . .”? That’s our deal-sealer?
It appears that my chief disqualification for a job as an administrator is that I do know when to give up. I was famous10 in college for being the guy going through the dugout when we were eight runs down in the ninth, exhorting my teammates, “Come on guys, let’s go out loud. Let’s get five and make ‘em go to their bullpen; let’s make ‘em know they were in a game.” But I knew it was over; I just didn’t want my teammates to know.11
Unlike me, administrators do not know when to give up. After all the above arguments had inspired unanimous derision, the Montcalm County Emergency Services Director offered one last rationalization. That man, one David Feldpausch, actually said, “The machine could be useful at the scene of a large fire.”
Honest, he said that.
Mr. Feldpausch did not elaborate, so we don’t know whether he envisioned throwing shaved ice on the fire, cooling off the firefighters, or attracting bystanders who might not otherwise attend the large fire if we didn’t reach out to them.
But whichever it was, it pretty much makes my judicial piñata proposal look like a stroke of genius.
- Okay, I lost every case in the California Supreme Court, but nobody expected an Orange County prosecutor to run up a good won-lost record there. They were amazed I came back without bullet holes.
- But she cheated: she got a graduate degree in Public Administration, so it’s not like it just came naturally to her.
- They both had managerial roles in law firms.
- Poor Rylaarsdam is stuck being the Acting PJ. He’s doing a lovely job, but the phone bill he’s running up calling Sacramento hourly to ask if they’ve appointed a new PJ yet would pay the salary for the new PJ and leave money in the budget for a snow cone machine.
- Go ahead, make up your own joke about me already having a job that requires skills I don’t have. Knock yourself out. I’ll wait.
- Like I say; it’s a perfect replica. So, just like mine, its abs are hidden. But, like mine, if you could see them, they’d be cut.
- Household repairs I’m forbidden to do by the terms of the restraining order obtained by the City of Laguna Beach, where I live, but most of them – like playing tennis and singing – I’ve just chosen not to do.
- These are heavy-duty machines. It would take two of us to load it into the catapult to fire it at the terrorist.
- You knew Stewart wouldn’t let this go, right? He was on it like ugly on a bulldog.
- Unlike me, they were legitimate athletes. Scholarship guys. I was never sure from moment to moment what they knew.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.