August 2012 - Cultural Literacy for Judges

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

The headline in the London Daily Mail said, “Out-of-touch judges to be given lessons in popular culture.” Of course, that caught my attention. But the subhead not only held my attention, it grabbed it with both hands and shook it: “After one said who are the Beatles?”
Wow. Who are the Beatles? Really? Life forms paddling around under the ice crust on Europa know the Beatles. English judges are that clueless about the world around them?
Well, according to the British Judicial College it is a problem. According to Lady Justice Hallett,(1) who helps run the college, “Albeit that many, most judges, are fully aware of the problems faced in their areas of the country, we want to try to make sure, and keep them fully aware of what is happening on their streets.”
While the Beatles incident is the most notorious demonstration of the insularity of the British bench, there have been others. One judge famously did not know who a stellar English soccer player—the Michael Jordan of his day—was.
Another, unfamiliar with English slang, forced one of the parties to explain to him that when his alleged defamers referred to his “lunchbox,” “they are making a reference to my genitals, Your Honour.”
Still another didn’t know what a Teletubby was.
These were deemed significant threats to the credibility of the English bench. So the judicial college is instituting a program of cultural literacy for English judges. Judge(2) Michael Heath, who sits at Lincoln Crown Court, said: “You need to know what’s going on in society.”
He’s right, of course. Judges need to be attuned to their culture. I don’t know how big a problem this is in American courts. I’m not aware of Orange County judges who do not know the Rams play their home games in St. Louis or that a teenager who says something is “sick” is complimenting it.
But I’m a public-spirited guy. And I know the California Judicial Education and Research organization can’t really do without me. So I have devised my own cultural literacy test for our judges. This will be sent to all my bench colleagues, and those who fail it will be required to watch a Real Housewives of Orange County marathon and spend six hours in a shopping mall before they resume the bench.

Identify the following (answers below each question):
1. Rehab, Unrelenting Vengeance, and Rockstar Juiced are:
   a. Ineluctable results of a misspent youth
   b. Proposed titles for the upcoming Charlie Sheen biography
   c. Energy drinks, one of which is the author’s favorite
The correct answer is “c.” I haven’t yet built up the courage to drink something called “Unrelenting Vengeance.” Maybe next year.

2. Toasted Head, Smoking Loon, and Cupcake are:
   a. Rock bands
   b. More titles for the Charlie Sheen biography
   c. California wine labels
The correct answer again is “c,” although I can’t honestly rule out “a” and “b.”

3. Pig International, Biophotonics, Lab Animal, True Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters, and Crappie World are:
   a. More stupid reality shows
   b. Rock bands
   c. Magazines
The correct answer—are you beginning to see a pattern here?—is “c.” (Keep in mind, this is a test for judges, and many of us are better at recognizing patterns than reading.) And yes, these are all magazines you could subscribe to. You live in a world in which there is enough interest in each of these topics to support a magazine. Crappy world, indeed.

4. Eleven dollars is:
   a. The cost of a single movie ticket at my neighborhood theater
   b. The cost of a bottle of Smoking Loon chardonnay
   c. The cost of the lowest-priced hamburger at the new burger joint in my town
Surely by now, you know the correct answer. If you want a Umami burger (an Umami burger? Not sure about the proper article here) in Laguna, you’ll need eleven dollars. Eleven dollars. Still cheaper than a movie, though, which is probably good for another question—though not the one I expressed . . . rather loudly . . . to the box office person at the theater last week.

5. Thunder, Heat, and Raptors are:
   a. Three reasons not to live in Houston 
   b. Things that discomfited prehistoric horses
   c. Three franchises in a major American sporting league
Again, “c.” See, you really are smart enough to be a judge.
Surely everyone got this one right. I mean, the NBA is a multi-billion dollar business that runs nine months out of every year. You shouldn’t have been able to miss this question no matter how much you wish you could.
But full credit if you answered “a” and extra credit if you added Mosquitoes, Torrential Rains, and Texans (by which, of course, I mean the sports franchise rather than the citizens. Of course.).

6. DJ Morphiziz,  SONICFLOOd, Rhymz Suhreal, and Smokie Norful are:
   a. Typos
   b. Names of the creatures in the bar scene from Star Wars
   c. Christian Rock Bands
“c” and deduct points if you didn’t know there were Christian rock bands.

7. Oxygen, G4, H2, and Velocity are:
   a. Requirements for life in the Mars colony
   b. Television networks
   c. More of the author’s favorite energy drinks
The answer is “b.” Yeah, I know it’s a dirty trick, but if everyone gets a perfect score, I won’t be able to sell the test to other states. Besides, these are television networks, for crying out loud. How can you not know television networks?

8. Quinoa, Edamame, and Feta are:
   a. Island nations in Micronesia
   b. The double-play combo of the Minnesota Twins
   c. Ingredients of the salad the author was instructed to buy for the Fourth of July barbeque
Went back to “c” on this one. Figured if I didn’t know it, I couldn’t really expect the other judges to know it.

9. Maybach, McLaren, and Fisker are:
   a. Winners of last year’s Nobel Prize in economics
   b. The double-play combination of the Minnesota Twins
   c. Cars that are beginning to show up in Newport Beach because Maseratis weren’t showy enough
People who know me will miss this one because they’ll figure I had to get a baseball answer in somewhere. Everyone else should have returned to good old reliable “c.”

10. Nothing is:
   a. What you’ve accomplished in these last ten minutes
   b. The combined benefit to you of all the columns of mine you’ve ever read
   c. The difference between the ingredients in “Safeway Added Strength Pain Reliever” and the ingredients in Safeway Migraine Formula Pain Reliever” 
The answer is  . . . drum roll, please . . . “c.” Advertisers no longer worry about insulting our intelligence. After all, they listen to the candidates we elect, too. Extra points for insight if you answered “a” or “b,” but I’m afraid if you haven’t yet figured out the long-term benefits of always answering “c,” we have to deduct points for educability.

Grading scale
9-10 correct: Send off to the governor’s office for a judicial appointment application.
6-8 correct: You need to buy more energy drinks and stop watching Charlie Sheen.
3-5 correct: Don’t cross any busy streets without a non-judge to help you.
0-2 correct: Gimme a call; we’ll go watch the Angels play the Minnesota Twins. I’ll bring the edamame.

(1) Don’t blame me. This is her title. It distinguishes her from male judges, whose title would be Lord Justice.
(2) Only justices get the “Lord” honorific, apparently. We have a similar system of honorifics reserved to the appellate courts in this country; I, for example, am usually referred to as “That Blanking Justice Bedsworth.”

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.