November 2020 Criminal Waste of Space - How Many Judges Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. October 20, 1988. You only recognize the first three, but in the Bedsworth family all four are historic.

October 20, 1988, was the day I fixed the Malibu light by the liquidambar tree. It’s the first and only household repair I’ve ever accomplished without doing serious damage to myself or the vocabulary of the neighborhood children.

Granted, we’re not talking about remodeling a kitchen or replacing fuel injectors here. I mean, replacing a bulb is not exactly rocket science. But for me, it’s damn near miraculous.

In the first place, there was an element of physical danger involved. Turned out I had to evict a black widow spider from the bulb housing.1

For another thing, it required a certain amount of ingenuity. One of the screws was so corroded it couldn’t be removed. I had to jerry-rig2 a new connection for the wires.3

Finally, it meant doing battle with electricity. As far as I’m concerned, electricity is voodoo science. And it scares the living daylights out of me.

My understanding of electricity is easily described: Stygian ignorance. Paleolithic third-graders had a better grasp of the principles of electricity than I do.

All I know about electricity is that it’s kept in a reservoir under the house which is refilled nightly by shoemaker’s elves. If the lights don’t come on when I flick the switch, I have to give serious consideration to moving.

So for me to start out with a broken electric thing and end up with a working electric thing—and with all my fingers and toes—is flat-out amazing.

My parents were so proud about the Malibu light, they sent out announcements:

Mr. and Mrs. William Bedsworth, Sr., take great pride in announcing that their son, Bill, after forty years of embarrassing family members by bending nails, flooding basements, scarring plaster, and just generally diminishing the reputation of his species, was able, on October 20, 1988, to accomplish a minor household repair without damaging the ozone layer.

If Gentiles had bar mitzvahs, I would have been eligible. At age forty.4

I tell this story now for two reasons.5 First, it illustrates a part of what seems to be the psyche of most of us lawyer-types: Extra-legal incapacity. If I take the lawyers I’ve discussed this with at their word, we tend to be singularly un-handy. Our health insurance policies should include riders about coverage if we wander into areas typically occupied by the building trades.

Oh, we’ve got our share of artists and athletes, pilots and pianists, gourmet cooks and wine connoisseurs. We have plenty of people who can do more than practice law.

But very few members of our profession can boast of skills that even an apprentice electrician or plumber would be impressed by. Almost every lawyer I talk to confesses to incompetence comparable to my own when it comes to household repairs.

Correction: Every male lawyer. I know several women lawyers—including my wife—who are good at this stuff.

So, in some cases, it may just be a matter of tactics. The basic truism of cooking, for example, taught to me by my father, is that the less you appear to be able to do, the less you will be asked to do. Dad figured a burnt forearm here and there, or a small grease fire was a fair price to pay for exemption from cooking duties.

Most men—even lawyers and judges—are capable of the basic cerebration required to extend this maxim to other areas of domestic endeavor. So, for some of my colleagues, this may just be a way of avoiding work.

Certainly Barbara Nicklaus’ experience would suggest this. Barbara was married to the greatest golfer in the history of the game: Jack Nicklaus—a man who amassed more money than a medium-sized savings and loan through spectacular hand-eye coordination. She tells this story:

The week we got back from our honeymoon, I asked him to put up a cup rack. Three screws. Two hours later, he was wringing-wet with sweat. He’d used every cuss word in the book. And the three screws still weren’t in. But, you know, maybe he’s smart. I never asked him to fix anything again. If I can’t fix it, I call the repairman.

So maybe my lawyer friends who claim to be repair dyslexics are not only more dexterous than I, but also smarter.6 Maybe they’re just too smart to admit their skills and get stuck spending their spare time with the innards of the vacuum cleaner spread out on the garage floor.

But I doubt it. I think the legal profession is populated primarily by people who have spent at least one Christmas Eve cursing bicycle manufacturers to the deepest regions of hell: “Gol blam it, how in felp am I supposed to connect the frogging tie rod to the cragmoppuing chain guard when I already bolted the mubber-glupping chain guard to the sunvastitching frame! Grassmoles!”

Let’s face it, folks, we are not good at taking direction, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. Our profession includes people who show up an hour late and say, “Really? We changed the clocks last night? For the fortieth time in the forty years I’ve been on the planet and as every form of media has been fairly shouting at me for the last forty-eight hours? Wow? I had no idea. Sorry, Your Honor.”

We also have people who, when told to rephrase a question, nine times out of ten ask it in exactly the same words—a trick they could never accomplish intentionally if given twenty tries.7

In short, we are people who have a hard time inserting Tab A into Slot B. We can give you chapter and verse on whether such a connection should be allowed or what the penalty should be for failing to accomplish it. But actually doing it? Not our long suit.

Which brings us to the other reason I decided to expose another of my myriad character flaws in print today. I’m worried about you.

COVID-19 has locked us down for eight months. I fear we may have reached the limit of our ability to fill time by extending our hobbies.

By now, your model train set has exceeded the number of cars owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and your spouse—harshly comparing its expansion to that of slime mold—has absolutely refused to allow it to expand into the guest bedroom.8 By now you’ve realized your novel—the brilliant sequel in which Atticus Finch is abducted by aliens who need him to apply his skills to avoid an injustice on their home planet—raises some unexpected plot complications you really don’t want to deal with.

By now you—and the neighbors—have agreed that you have no natural talent for the banjo.

By now you’re starting to look around the house9 and wonder if painting the living
room ceiling might just brighten up the room. You probably wouldn’t need a new ladder; surely the old one is tall enough if you use the top rung.

And the garbage disposal seems sluggish now that you think about it. Wouldn’t require anything serious; just a little tuning up. Maybe re-wire it.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

If you’re even thinking of getting on a ladder, call our court and one of the justices—I won’t say which one—will talk you down off that ledge. If you’re thinking of re-hanging a door, another justice here will explain to you the error of your ways.

And if you’re contemplating anything that involves electricity, plumbing, concrete, tile, refrigeration, carpentry, carpeting, hardscape, softscape, hammers, screwdrivers, drills . . . or outdoor lighting, call me. I’ll show you the bronze plaque my family mounted next to the Malibu light.



(1) No, I didn’t see the little orange hourglass on its belly. It could have been a barrel spider or a wolf spider. Hell, it could have been a midget sheepdog with linebacker lamp black on its face for all I know. Animals whose legs and eyes come in numbers divisible by eight scare me. And when one of them starts crawling up my hand, I don’t spend a lot of time on taxonomical niceties. Lord forgive me, I killed the little sucker without giving it a chance to identify itself.

(2) The alternative spelling for this term is “jury-rig.” You can understand why I wouldn’t want to admit to that.

(3) Yes, my brother did re-wire my re-wiring two weeks later, but at the time, I felt like Marconi.

(4) The first draft of this—thanks to my nonpareil voice recognition system (which we’ve previously discussed)—said “if gerbils had bar mitzvahs . . . .” That’s a lot funnier than anything I could think up. If the image of a gerbil bar mitzvah doesn’t make you laugh, don’t even bother reading the rest of the column.

(5) Three if you count the fact I promised them I’d fill this space somehow.

(6) Insert your own insult here; my capacity for self-deprecation has its limits.

(7) And the proof that this inability is chromosomal, that lawyers just don’t possess the gene necessary to follow directions, is that the other lawyer, the one who interposed the objection in the first place, often sits silently by and lets the repetition of the question go unchallenged—as oblivious as his/her colleague to what’s just happened. More than once the word “sustained” was halfway out of my mouth before I realized there had not been a new objection.

(8) Despite the unassailable logic of your point that there won’t be any guests for the foreseeable future.

(9) Especially since it’s the only place you have to look around.


William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.