by Justice William W. Bedsworth
My bar number is five digits long and starts with a 5. The last batch of admittees got numbers in the neighborhood of 475,000. A lot of people have moved into the neighborhood since I filed my first brief . . . in 1971.
If you haven’t already, you will someday look back from a milestone similar to the one we celebrate today1 and be equally astonished. My wish for all of you is that you are able to do so with as much amazement and gratitude as I feel today.
This column marks forty years of A Criminal Waste of Space. Forty years. We’re closing in on 500 times I’ve been allowed to unleash my imagination and let it run across the spectacular landscape that is life in the American legal system.
If you’ve ever been to a dog park and watched a golden retriever race heedlessly around, delighting in his time with the other dogs and the fact of his temporary freedom, you know what this has meant to me. I am grateful.
These monthly breaks in my routine have been invaluable. There’s not much room for laughter in criminal prosecution (where I spent my first fifteen years in the profession). And the trial bench (where I spent my next ten), while situated amongst people with great senses of humor, is occupied with trying to solve serious problems. You need to be serious.
Which brings us to the court where I’ve spent my last twenty-four years. This is my dream job, and I love it, but you really have to rein in any tendency toward frivolity you might feel. Nobody wants to read, “Your ten million dollar judgment is reversed, but did you hear the one about the nun and the parrot and the sailor?” So this outlet, this ability to “get it out of my system,”2 has been a godsend.
Oh, it’s not an unalloyed blessing. I’m sure what I feel about writing is much like what you feel about it. It’s never something you choose to do. You do it because for some reason you have to. A brief has to be filed, a motion has to be drawn up, a client has to be advised.
I didn’t choose to do it, either. Like you, I was forced to it. But my compulsion was internal. There was nothing looming in the real world that required me to write. I just had to do it. I had to “get it out of my system.”
The first time it happened, I was a senior in high school and had encountered Benjamin Franklin’s adage that, “Enough is as good as a feast.” I wasted a study hall hour writing 300 words of “humorous composition” challenging and lampooning the fatuousness of what—to my sixteen-year-old mind—seemed an obvious falsehood.
The tenor of the essay was unsurprisingly simple and simplistic: “For lunch today, I’ll have two baloney sandwiches and three cookies. That will be enough. Last year, before prom, we ate at Mediterrania. It cost me $67 plus tip. That was a feast. The feast was better.”
Time has compassionately spared me any other memory of that essay. Its significance is not in what I wrote, but in the fact that I wrote it. It was not an assignment. I got nothing from it. No one ever saw it except Bill Brown, who sat behind me and was thoroughly flummoxed when my answer to “What class is this for?” was, “It’s not for a class; I just wrote it.” I can still see the bewilderment in his face.3
Unbeknownst to me, it was the first appearance in my life of a symptom of what I’ve come to think of as Writer’s Disease. A need to get things out of my system. An outlet for a creative urge bottled up in someone who could not paint, draw, sing, act, or play piano.4
Writer’s Disease is like Huntington’s Chorea: it’s a bad gene that sits in you undetected for decades and then manifests itself and changes your life forever. It certainly changed mine.
I had the unconscionable good fortune the next year to draw Fr. R. A. Taylor, S.J. for my freshman English instructor in college. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he taught his English class out of Jim Murray’s Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columns in the L.A. Times.
Had he chosen to teach from Milton or Melville or Conrad, the words would have been collected in the gutters of our minds and later run down into periodic assignment completions. But he was taking something real, something only hours old, and dissecting it for us like he was teaching a biology lab. “Look at the way he starts this paragraph,” he’d say. “Look at the way he connects this paragraph to the last one.” “Why do you think he chose this word; what other words could he have used?” “Why is this word funnier than that one?”
That class made me an English major.5 It lit me up. I still have the essay on which he wrote, “Typical Bedsworth baloney. 97.”
Then I went to Berkeley Law and they tried to teach me to think. Jury’s still out on that, but Berkeley at the end of the sixties was definitely—in the term of the day—“mind-expanding.”
And transitioning from People’s Park and tear gas to Orange County in the heyday of the John Birch Society was a collision of dialectics abrupt enough to cause a contrecoup concussion. As the dean of my law school put it when I told him I’d landed a job in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, “Aaaah, missionary work amongst the fascisti.”
There, just as my musical skills had made me a catcher, my trial work turned me into an appellate lawyer.
I compiled what look like lovely trial stats in the DA’s Office, but it was Orange County in the seventies: the juries were so conservative they practically stood and applauded when the prosecutor was introduced. As Jim Stotler, who was one of my many mentors,6 put it, “Relax, kid. You don’t have to be brilliant. Just keep asking the cop, ‘What happened next?’ until he’s done, and then call your next witness.”
I loved being a part of that office. I loved the camaraderie and the commitment to doing the right thing, but trial work wasn’t what I wanted to do. And as Emily Dickinson said, “The heart wants what it wants, else it does not care.”7
Mine wanted to write. And since there were precious few in the DA’s Office who shared that desire, they let me do it. They had 100 lawyers who wanted to be in the trial court; they had five—maybe—who wanted to write. With so few competitors, I excelled.
And one day, while sitting in court waiting for my motions to be called, I heard a lawyer from Los Angeles tell the calendar judge he wanted to set a hearing for “an oral traverse of the search warrant.” While we all knew what he was saying, it was an archaic term even in the seventies. I turned to Dan Brice and said, “I thought Oral Traverse was an evangelist in Oklahoma.” “Nah,” he responded, “it’s dental work; cost you an arm and a leg.”
And my life changed. That was the moment of conception for the column you read today—an outlet that helped me get elected to the bench, later caught the attention of the Presiding Judge of the Court of Appeal, and—through national syndication—gave me a national audience and won me ego-nourishing awards.
Inspired by that exchange, I spent the lunch hour writing, “The California Criminal Law Specialist and Screendoor Repairman’s Examination,” twenty-five multiple-choice questions with answers like those two. Not for a class, not for a case, not for the advancement of my career. Because of writer’s disease. Because I had to get it out of my system.
Later, I was naïve enough to send it off to the California State Bar Journal, not knowing they had never before published a humor piece. When they decided, “what the hell, let’s do it,” I got a call from a nice woman named Deb Behrens, who was the editor of the OCBA Bar Bulletin,8 asking me if I would be willing to write similar stuff for our magazine. And the golden retriever was loose.
Ogden Nash wrote: “An ancient termite tasted wood, and found that it was very good. And that is why your cousin May . . . fell through the parlor floor today.” Well, now you’ve heard the story of how this forty-year enterprise came to be. You probably wish I could have been as concise as Nash.
I am grateful for the time and space you’ve given me. I know there are those among you who find it inexplicable I’m allowed in here every month—and you should take some solace in the fact I think of you every time I sit down to write—but at least now you understand the collection of accidents that caused it.
I hope falling through the parlor floor every month hasn’t left you with too many bruises. It’s been the e-ticket ride of my life: a privilege I can never fully describe nor fully repay.
I am embarrassed that the only words I can find to express my gratitude are the ones Mom tried to teach me never to forget. They’re not much, but they’re heartfelt: Thank you.
(1) Well . . . I celebrate it. You may just be observing it. And shaking your head.
(2) This is a phrase my mother often used to describe my quirkier outbursts. I don’t think she fully appreciated how much purging would be required in my case.
(3) Seating was often alphabetical, and Bill—a smart kid with an all-league jumpshot but the only ballplayer ever to hit behind me in a batting order—had grown used to my weirdness by senior year. This, though—writing an essay for no reason—this took the cake.
(4) Mom tried. She was an excellent pianist. I would come home from school and she’d be playing Chopin or Liszt or Rimsky-Korsakov. But then Dad, a casket-maker, would come home and turn on Merle
Haggard. I preferred Haggard, and my hands turned out to be better suited to baseball than music—though just barely.
(5) Well, that and the C+ I got on my first history test. I hadn’t seen a C since my 7th grade handwriting class. I walked out of the classroom, marched across campus, and changed my major to English on the spot.
(6) When your first three assignments are supervised by Alicemarie and Jim Stotler, Tom Crosby and Dick Luesebrink, and Frank Briseño, it’s hard to get too far off track.
(7) English major, remember?
(8) The less discerning predecessor.
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 email@example.com.