by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I am not a particularly private person. I’ve been writing this column, essentially expressing my more-or-less complete bewilderment at the vicissitudes of life in the legal community, for thirty-four years. It’s been nationally syndicated for the last fifteen. A person with a reasonably well-developed sense of privacy could not do that.
So I am not especially embarrassed by the anecdote I’m about to tell. After I retire, there will be rooms full of people jostling for the chance to tell their embarrassing anecdotes about me. This one will doubtless pale in comparison.
But the truth of the matter is that I spent my first three or four days of law school thinking the initial after the judge’s name in an opinion represented his first name.1 I’d gone through twenty years as “Bedsworth, W.,” so when I saw “Hancock, J.” or “Stephenson, J.,” I assumed those referred to people named John or Joseph or James.
Along about Thursday it began to dawn on me that it was a helluva coincidence that all these people had names that started with “J.” And that the ones whose first names were apparently Christopher or Charles or Philip or Paul somehow felt the need to include their middle initials so everyone would know they were members of the “Yclept J Club.”
I finally tumbled to the fact one was a “Chief Judge” or a “Presiding Justice” and the light—rather belatedly—dawned. This early instance of somewhat diminished acuity will come as no surprise to those of you who have appeared before me.
But you may be a little taken aback to learn that others—with as much legal training as I had when I made that mistake2—are still making it.
Some time ago, I wrote an opinion in a case called Woody’s Group Inc. v. City of Newport Beach. Unbeknownst to me, the underlying dispute had become something of a cause célèbre in Newport Beach. So after I went off to Colorado on vacation, the Newport Beach Daily Pilot and then the Orange County Register wrote stories about my opinion. I know that because my email inbox began filling with missives from friends teasing me about my name change.
Here’s how the Daily Pilot phrased it: “The City Council violated its own municipal code by entertaining Henn’s appeal even though he didn’t follow the procedures laid out in the code, and then retroactively tried to justify that violation by claiming the city has a custom of extending such lenity to council members, Judge PJ Bedsworth wrote in the decision.”
The Register made the same mistake. This was pointed out to me by a local lawyer who used to be a Register reporter. I don’t know how much flak he’s given them, but he’s been on me like ugly on a bulldog, insisting he is never going to be able to think of me as anybody but “PJ” anymore.
My golf foursome has heartily endorsed the change. I ran in a twenty-footer and heard, “Wow, PJ’s a lot better putter than Beds was.” “PJ, will you please mark that for me?” “Hey, PJ, while you’re in the woods looking for your ball, see if you can find any of Beds’; he’s hit dozens in there.”
There have been other, even more immature comments, but if you’re a golfer, you understand my reluctance to reproduce them here.
My grandchildren can’t figure out why their father now refers to me as “Don Pablo.” His attempt to explain that my “new name” is Pablo Jose merely confused them and made them wonder if they would be saddled with new names someday.
My colleagues at the court have, thankfully, taken the high road. Although, as one of them pointed out, this is not the worst thing I’ve been called. It’s probably not even the worst thing I’ve been called today.
I was called several worse things the last time the Daily Pilot wrote up one of my cases. That was back in the late eighties. I had just begun my first term as a trial court judge and had decided to celebrate with a vacation in Canada.3
While I was gone, a murderer filed a federal habeas action complaining that the Orange County jail—where he was awaiting trial—was violating his rights. He said they interrupted his sleep, fed him swill, confiscated his reading matter, got him up at 4:00 a.m. for 9:00 a.m. court appearances, and a litany of similar discomfitures that he objected to.
And objected to fairly effectively. I had prosecuted some of the early stages of his prosecution before I took the bench. He was one of the most thorough and articulate pro pers I have ever encountered. I’m sure his federal habeas petition was a model of legal writing.
It was good enough to get the attention of a federal district judge. That judge ordered a hearing and came to Orange County to hear it. That meant they had to put him up at 700 Civic Center Drive,4 and since I was out of town, my courtroom there was vacant. That’s where he conducted the hearing.
And that’s where the Daily Pilot’s reporter went to watch the hearing. And that’s where the Daily Pilot’s reporter saw the name above the door to the courtroom: Judge William W. Bedsworth. And that’s where the Daily Pilot’s reporter heard the judge rule that the jail had violated the murderer’s rights by taking away his Playboy magazines. And that’s where the Daily Pilot’s reporter’s eyes lit up because—let’s face it, folks—“Judge Rules Jail Can’t Take Murder Suspect’s Playboys Away” is a pretty great story.
I can vouch for the fact the story caught the attention of the Daily Pilot’s readers. I know that because I think every single one of them sent me a letter about it. I came back from my vacation to find my chambers hip-deep in letters.
It looked like it had been snowing envelopes for a week. The county had to rent a snow-blower to clear a path to my desk.
I had no idea what was going on until I found the two dozen copies of the story that had been faxed, mailed, dropped off, or thrown through my window attached to a rock, stacked on my chair.
Front page coverage. Big headline. Lovely.
I contacted the paper. They were very nice. They apologized. They ran a retraction. Two column inches on page six.
I’m not sure how many people read two-inch stories on page six of the Daily Pilot. I suspect it’s a number lower than the number of people whose eye is attracted by the words “Playboy,” “Murderer,” and “Jail” in a headline. There are people in this county who will go to their grave convinced I’m the guy who ruled murder suspects have a constitutional right to read5 Playboy in the jail.
Twain was clearly right when he said, “Never get into an argument with someone who buys his ink by the barrel.” But there’s a corollary to Twain’s rule that applies here. “People who buy their ink by the barrel don’t have to be mad at you to hurt you.”
This realization helped me develop Bedsworth’s First Law of Public Relations, which I reproduce here in a futile attempt to make the time you’ve spent reading this column something other than a total loss. It says, “Only two things can happen when your name’s in the newspaper: Either you look bad, in which case you look bad; or you look good, in which case your boss wants to know why you’re getting all the credit.”
So I try to stay out of the newspapers. If anybody asks—about anything—I tell ‘em it wasn’t me. My evil twin PJ did it.
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.