February 2017 - Thinking Outside the Container Ship

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

The immortal blues musician John Lee Hooker was amazed to see the paths modern music tracked. He once marveled, “Groups are corporations now. They have pension plans. Musicians have saw the daylight.”

I have very little in common with John Lee Hooker—except maybe his facility with language—but I do share this: I am astonished to find pensions suddenly looming on my horizon. And I am trying to see the daylight.

Of course, pensions become more relevant to me every year. This is one of the petty indignities of the aging process. As I get older, my lunch conversations change. I used to sit around with my buddies discussing drop-back quarterbacks, Shelby Cobras, and our fight against the objectification of women. Now we discuss arthritic knees and pension plans.

To make matters worse, pension issues are now showing up on my professional radar. Two years ago, I spent two days in a conference trying to learn pension law. Those two days made my lunch conversations look like The British Shakespeare Company’s performance of Les Miserables.

But, dedicated public servant that I am, I’m trying to learn this stuff. Andy Guilford has spent so much time trying to explain the Rule of 80 to me that he’s put in for designation as an MCLE provider.

For those of you who have so far successfully avoided contemplation of pension law, let me explain that the Rule of 80 is the basis for computation of a federal judge’s pension eligibility. As I understand it, you subtract 80 from the judge’s IQ. If the result is an integer—which it almost always is—he qualifies.1

There is an alternative method which involves a right triangle whose hypotenuse is the square root of a turnip and all of whose angles have to be divisible by left wing ailerons, but that method is so rarely required that its adepts have pretty much disappeared.2

I am fortunate enough to belong to a retirement system that is much easier to understand. Of course, my friends on the trial bench3 have pointed out that while the computation of eligibility may be easier, it is much more difficult to tell when an appellate judge has retired. So the clarity of the state system may be illusory—at least as to me.

But as turgid as the waters of American pension law seem to be, Canadian law must be a swamp by comparison. Here’s what it said on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s website: Labatt’s Employees Mourn Loss of Beer for Life Pension.4

Yep. That’s what it says. You can re-read the sentence, rearrange the sentence, diagram it, divide it with left wing ailerons . . . it will still say the same thing: Employees of the Labatt Brewing Company used to get free beer for life as part of their pension.

The law pertaining to a pension system that includes “free beer for life” must generate much more interesting lunch discussions than mine. No wonder Canada inspires “true patriot love” in all its sons.5

We could inspire that kind of devotion in California, too. Every year, the lobbyist for California judges asks us what we should be seeking in the new contract. Somehow I never thought of, “Get us free beer for life when we retire.”

But the union that represents the employees at Labatt Brewery did. And they got it. More than fifty years ago.

For five decades, Labatt has provided retirees with a beer allotment as part of their pension. In Edmonton, that amounted to 624 beers a year.6 London, Ontario employees got less. That distinction probably bogged down contract negotiations every time.

But times have changed. Anheuser-Busch now owns Labatt, and they don’t see any reason to continue a practice that must cut significantly into the $55 billion dollars they cleared last year.

They believe their pension benefits are competitive without free beer. And Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports their decision to make beer less accessible to old guys with time on their hands. Not to mention all the microbreweries who figure the fewer people drinking Labatt’s, the better. So there appear to be at least two sides to the no-free-beer call.

But it did get me to thinking about my own pension benefits. After all, once you find out free beer for life is in the ballpark, your concept of pension parameters expands considerably.

I have long advocated hiring a urologist for our court. We don’t need another judge nearly as much as we need a good urologist. The Superior Court could probably use one, too. Any organization that hires as many old men as the court system should prepare for the inevitable.7

It occurs to me now that a urologist would be a great pension benefit as well. Provide free beer and someone to take care of your ability to process it. Word gets out about those benefits, and the high-power corporate types will be breaking down the door of the governor’s appointments secretary. Heck, we’d have people at Debevoise and Plimpton applying for California judgeships, and they don’t have an office west of Washington, D. C.

While you’re at it, throw in a burger allotment, a certain number of free waffles, and a gym membership.

Imagine the caliber of people who would apply for judgeships with that kind of future! You’d never have to settle for someone like me again.

Not to mention the boost to the economy. Breweries would pop up, the Waffle House franchise would move to California, and the gym memberships would kill off enough of us to make the whole thing fiscally feasible.

Entertainment benefits! Absolutely! Put those in the package.

Granted, if you give us the free beer, our need for entertainment will be diminished, but if you don’t, how about vouchers for community theater or minor league baseball? Those people can use some propping up, and we’d be happy to do it.

Massages, spa treatments, pedicures, housecleaning. My wife assures me that if I retire, I’ll be doing a lot of housecleaning. And from what I’ve seen of housecleaning, it’s more likely to require a massage afterward than my golf game.

It’s the 21st Century, folks. Recent events demonstrate that we are living in the “interesting times” envisioned in the Chinese curse.8 It’s time to think not only outside the box, but outside the container in which the box was packed on the Chinese container ship that brought it here.

You want to improve the bench? This is your chance. Lobby for more imaginative retirement benefits for judges. Me, I’m exhausted; I’m going to go lie down.9


  1. (1) I have chosen to use the male pronoun in this discussion because I figure any woman who is so overwhelmingly qualified as to be confirmed by the Senate for a federal judgeship—a job which, as the old dancing joke would have it, they have to do backwards and in high heels—should not be allowed to retire. We need these people too much.
  2. (2) As you can see, Judge Guilford has made significant progress with me. I’ve pretty much got this down.
  3. (3) Both of them.
  4. (4) And before you ask, I am a fanatic fan of Gordon Lightfoot, the National Hockey League, and maple syrup. I am an ardent Canadaphile. I was checking out the CBC long before November’s election.
  5. (5) Last I heard, Canada was still debating whether to change the gender-specific nature of its national anthem. If you give it a close reading, patriotism is required only of male Canadians.
  6. (6) Which is a reasonable number when you consider that retirees will not include frat boys.
  7. (7) Yeah, the men would get more use out of this perq than the women, but they get more use out of the ladies rooms, and I don’t begrudge them that benefit. If need be to make it politically feasible, hire an internist . . . with a subspecialty of urology.
  8. (8) Chinese! Free Chinese lessons for retirees. Next to nobody will sign up, but it lengthens the list of benefits likely to appeal to the Plimpton Debevoise people.
  9. (9) Lie down! Sofas! You could give us a sofa allowance! What retiree doesn’t need a really good sofa?

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 william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.