April 2011 - Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Typos . . .

by Justice William W. Bedsworth 

My friend Cliff Roberts represented the late Don Callender for eleven years. It was probably a record. Callender, who was the one-man band who powered the Marie Callender’s empire, was a difficult client. He went through lawyers like you and I go through sunflower seeds: by the handful. And there was much chewing up and spitting out involved. 

Going eleven years with Don Callender was like going eleven rounds with Muhammad Ali. 

Not that Cliff would ever admit it. Cliff could never bring himself to say an unkind word about the man. Or about anyone else, for that matter. If Cliff had represented Charlie Manson, he would have told you the guy has a great smile. 

But my own experience with Don—which I hasten to point out was limited to a plane ride and a couple of rounds of golf, and even Shirley Temple probably bit a stewardess and three caddies occasionally—was that he was a steely businessman and a flinty personality. 

He came by both honestly. He was a genuine Horatio Alger story. He started out rising before dawn to deliver—by bicycle—the pies his mother had been up all night baking. And by the time he succumbed two years ago to injuries suffered in a fall, he had bootstrapped his way to the top of a nine-figure restaurant and frozen food empire whose ubiquity made Starbucks look like a localized phenomenon. 

He was a force of nature. I once saw him hit a shot that banged into the pin and caromed fifteen feet away. I was amazed the pin had the temerity not to jump out of the hole and make room for Don’s ball. So was Don. 

Don was a “Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute kind of guy,” and that got him into a lot of lawsuits. The first time Cliff represented him, he spent days preparing Callender for his deposition. They went over everything Cliff could imagine might come up. By the time they finished, Cliff knew the name of Callender’s third-grade teacher, the engine capacity of his first car, and the color and bristle strength of his toothbrush. He was confident there could be no surprises at the depo. 

But Callender’s answer to the first question he was asked illustrated how unpredictable he could be. Asked, “What is your occupation, Mr. Callender?” the magnate never blinked. The man who micromanaged a business empire whose scope and complexity would boggle the dean of a business school, the man who had parlayed bicycle pie-delivery into a business HALF of which he would sell for eighty million dollars a few years later, the man who owned both a helicopter and a private plane and collected bronze statuary like it was postage stamps, glared back at the questioner and said, “Baker. Part-time.” 

I mention this now because Callender’s answer is pretty close to my own job-description. While my business card says, “Associate Justice,” I am, in fact, an assistant copy editor. Part-time. 

Oh sure, I read cases and write opinions. But we got lotsa people who do that. We got a whole building full of people at 601 W. Santa Ana Blvd. who can analyze brilliantly and write beautifully. 

But copy-editing—being the guy who catches the typos and malapropisms and questionable usages . . . nobody wants to do that job. Nobody wants to be the person who corrects spelling and inserts commas and says, “Uh, actually, that should be ‘farther,’ not ‘further’.” THAT is not a job that has applicants lined up out the door. 

Fortunately for the Fourth District, Division 3, Pete Wilson—in a moment of incandescent lucidity—recognized its need for a really good copy editor, and appointed me.(1) 

My colleagues love this about me. They love knowing that no matter how long they spend polishing their analysis and refining their syntax, I’m going to send the finished product back with a half-dozen picayune objections. They love the fact I do not merely pick the nits out of their prose, but instead drench them in red ink and leave them to die on the otherwise pristine pages of the previously-ready-to-be-filed opinion. 

They don’t come right out and tell me they love it, you understand. We’re not a real touchy-feely bunch, here.(2) But that’s okay. I know how important it is to them that every opinion be flawless, right down to the last tittle and jot.(3) 

I’m sure they regret that I’m only a part-time copy-editor. Obviously, they’d love to have me performing this vital function on every panel. They appreciate my commitment to the distinctions between semi-colon and colon, hyphen and dash. 

They don’t know whence comes this dedication. I have often heard them say, “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” Or, as one of them phrased it, “What color is the sky on your home planet?” 

But it’s really pretty simple. I have been a victim of my own shoddy proofreading. I learned the hard way what happens if proofreading is neglected. 

As a young prosecutor, I submitted a brief to Judge Kenneth Williams in a drug case involving cocaine found in a bedroom shared by the defendants. I thought the point was pretty straightforward and called it “a striking example of the application of laws governing joint possession.” I did not proofread it. 

Judge Williams not only ruled in my favor, he sent a letter to District Attorney Cecil Hicks on my behalf. Cecil showed it to me.

Judge Williams complimented me on having the nerve to “call a spade a spade. It was,” he agreed, “‘a stinking example’ of the rule, and young Mr. Bedsworth was right to identify it as such.” 

Judge Williams must have asked me a dozen times in my career—usually in open court—whether I thought the point I was making was a “stinking example” or just an ordinary application of whatever rule I was citing. He usually followed up with, “How would you characterize the fragrance of this issue, Mr. Bedsworth?” 

So I became a proofreader much the same way Don Callender became flinty: hard knocks. 

And it’s good that I did. If we leave out a “not,” or say “affirmed” when we meant “reversed,” all hell breaks loose. It’s not like newspapers, who simply print corrections when they make mistakes.(4) 

It was one of those corrections that inspired this piece. My editor sent me a copy of a retraction from an Australian newspaper. It said: 

“There was an error printed in a story titled, ‘Pigs Float Down the Dawson,’ on Page 11 of yesterday’s [Morning Bulletin]. The story, by reporter Daniel Burdon, said, ‘more than thirty thousand pigs were floating down the Dawson River.’ What Baralaba piggery owner Sid Eversham actually said was ‘30 sows and pigs’ not ‘thirty thousand pigs.’ The Morning Bulletin would like to apologise for this error, which was also reprinted in today’s Rural Weekly CQ before the mistake was known.” 

I am personally pretty concerned by the prospect of even thirty pigs floating down a river. I spent a lot of time on the internet trying unsuccessfully to find out why ANY pigs were floating down the Dawson River, but that’s not my point. 

My point is simply that if our court had inadvertently increased a judgment by 29,970 pigs, not only would we have received one very angry petition for rehearing,(5) but we could have thrown the pork bellies commodities market into a tizzy from which the American economy might never have recovered.(6) It could have been collateralized debt obligations all over again. 

I’ve signed a couple of opinions I’d like to have back. But say what you will about me, I have never written an opinion that actually endangered the economy.(7) And with me doing the proofreading, it is unlikely our court will.

Nor are we likely to do to any of our litigants what a South Dakota newspaper did to an unlucky traffic offender. Their retraction said, “Due to incorrect information received from the Clerk of the Court’s Office, Diane K. Merchant, 38 [address], was incorrectly listed as being fined for prostitution in Wednesday’s paper. The charge should have been failure to stop at a railroad crossing. The Public Opinion apologizes for the error.” 

Poor Diane is going to have to carry that retraction around in her purse for the rest of her life. 

I hope these few simple illustrations have shown you just how important my role is at the court. I’ll expect you to point that out the next time your office-mates question my ability to reason my way out of a paper bag. 

Explain to them that THAT is not my job. My job is to make sure the logo on the paper bag is properly spelled, the paper is the right color, and the bag does not contain 30,000 pigs. 

And I’m damn good at it. 

(1) Yeah, well, you were pretty sure I wasn’t here because of my unshakeable grasp on the principles of class certification, right?

(2) Alright, one of my colleagues is a little touchy every now and again, but none of those books has ever actually hit me.

(3) I wasted ten minutes trying to think of a footnote to put here. It seems to cry out for a footnote, and it hurts me that I failed. If you can think of a way to work Y. A. Tittle into this spot, please contact me.

(4) Usually in much smaller type and way in the back of the paper, next to the story about parliamentary elections in southeastern Uzbekistan.

(5) Possibly two.

(6) At least I think that’s my point. Frankly, I got halfway into that sentence and forgot where I was going. That’s why I stick to copy editing; the whole writing thing is a lot tougher than it looks.

(7) How’s that for a legacy? That would be a nice first sentence for my obituary, wouldn’t it? “Justice William Bedsworth, an appellate judge who served up a few gopher balls but never wrote an opinion that actually endangered the economy, died yesterday at the age of . . . .”  

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