Archive for October, 2005

Building a Better Courthouse

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I’m no expert in architecture, but I’m interested in it. I’m especially interested in the planning aspect of it — fitting a building’s form and function into the surrounding community. I love wasting time looking at buildings on web sites like this one. And I’m a big fan of the National Building Museum. Courthouses are a great example of a type of building where a lot of competing considerations grapple during the design process. Naturally, I was quite pleased to see this “Legal Affairs” article about courthouse architecture.

There’s a lot of neat information in there about the history of federal courthouse architecture. Around the turn of the last century, there was a boom in courthouse construction, and several of those buildings were architectural marvels. The key figure in this building spree was chief federal architect James Knox Taylor. Perhaps the best example of his influence is the Italian Renaissance-style Ninth Circuit courthouse in San Francisco. During the Depression, a slew of new courthouses were built by the Works Progress Administration, and many of them were in a neo-classical style then quite prominent in Washington. (The Supreme Court building, completed in 1935, is a good example.) In the 1960s, the trend was for multi-purpose federal buildings, and fewer stand-alone, grand courthouses.

We’re now in a new boom cycle of federal courthouse construction, but one full of debates over what makes a good courthouse. The article discusses some of the various problems. We have to be concerned about security, but we also want courthouses to be open and accessible to the public — courthouses aren’t prisons, after all. Their design should inspire us to think about all our justice system stands for, but should also be appropriate within their surroundings. But, courthouses can’t just be showpieces; they have to be functional as well.

I posted here about the security issue specifically, but I also included a link to the General Services Administration’s design guide for federal courthouses. It’s telling that the document is about 400 pages long. Any time so much bureaucracy is involved, it’s hard to avoid some compromise of architectural vision. But it’s good to know that the GSA does care about asthetics, to the point of giving out design awards. (I think the award-winners are showcased at the Building Museum, another reason to make it worth a visit!) Okay, so some of the winners aren’t perfect. See page 6 of the document linked here for some pictures of the O’Connor Courthouse in Phoenix. All that glass in the desert heat has been somewhat uncomfortable for the building’s inhabitants, I gather — see question 18 here. So that’s an example of a lovely building that doesn’t fit well where it is. (Another award-winner is the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, which has a pretty neat design, and might be more suitable to the local weather.)

Anyway, the “Legal Affairs” article highlights some recent buildings and how their architects have dealt with these issues. Highly recommended for the courthouse buff!

Article III Comings and Goings

Monday, October 24th, 2005

Over the weekend, Howard at How Appealing posted a link to the “Federal Judgeship and Administrative Efficiency Act of 2005.” This is a bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner. A couple of thoughts about it.

First, the bill would establish Article III courts in the Virgin Islands and provides for two district court judges to sit there. Now, the VI have “district judges” who are Article I appointees, like Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Those judges don’t have life tenure and can’t sit by designation in Article III courts. See Nguyen v. United States, 539 U.S. 69 (2003). So, Sensenbrenner’s bill would provide VI judges with those characteristics. Perhaps more importantly, the bill would place VI district judges and their clerks under the purview of the Article III Groupie, who would presumably no longer consider them “icky.” All the more reason for law students to consider a clerkship in the Virgin Islands! (I knew a guy who clerked for a district judge there a few years back, and his assessment was “There sure are worse places to spend your first year out of law school.”)

More noteworthy is the effort in the bill to split the Ninth Circuit. The act would leave California, Hawaii, Guam, and the NMI in the Ninth, and put Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska into a new Twelfth Circuit. With all respect to the interesting cases that come from Hawaii and the territories (see, e.g., Nguyen, supra), the new Ninth would really be the California Circuit. The vast majority of judges and cases would be Californian, and that circuit would still be larger than most of its sister circuits. Also, this move would give California’s Senators a de facto veto over most appointments in the circuit.

A split of the Ninth Circuit may be necessary, but California is so big that the proposed Twelfth Circuit would have but a fraction of the current Ninth’s caseload. But a cleaner split may not be possible. The next-heaviest dockets are in Nevada and Arizona, but those are the two states that would seem most suitable to joining California after the split. If Congress put either of those states in the new Ninth (leaving aside the slim chance that it would create a non-contiguous circuit of Arizona and the northern states), pretty much all it would do is create a new circuit with a very light caseload, and leave the Ninth with most of its current docket. Not much of an improvement. Another possibility would be to leave Oregon in the Ninth, but maybe Congress doesn’t want to lump Judge O’Scannlain in with his California colleagues.

I don’t like the idea of having a circuit consist of only one state (whether literally or for all intents and purposes). Doesn’t that create a precedent for a New York Circuit, or a Texas Circuit, or a Florida Circuit, if we ever feel a need to split the Second, Fifth, or Eleventh Circuits? (Maybe Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana could have an Old Fifth Circuit reunion in that case.) Wouldn’t Sensenbrenner’s proposed split further isolate California’s federal judges, without the, ahem, balance from the judges from around the circuit? As the bill is written, I don’t see any real benefits from an administrative efficiency standpoint: the new Ninth Circuit wouldn’t be small enough as compared to the current one. It seems like the chief aim of the legislation is to relieve most of the states in the Ninth Circuit from having to follow that court’s jurisprudence, but wouldn’t the Twelfth Circuit just follow the Eleventh’s precedent and adopt all the law from the Ninth Circuit, this requiring en banc hearings every time it wanted to slough off some “liberal” precedent?

For these reasons, I endorse the proposals of the White Commission, named after its chairman, the late Justice Byron White. The Commission proposed splitting the Ninth (and probably eventually the Fifth) Circuit into divisions that would act in the same manner as the current circuit. In the case of an inter-division conflict, the full Ninth Circuit could resolve the issue, but in most cases appeals could go directly to the Supreme Court. The full circuit would act as something of a super en banc panel, then. This measure would allow the splitting of a circuit within a state, thus allowing for more even distribution of caseloads. And while that does open the possibility of the divisions applying different laws within one state, presumably the full circuit and the Supreme Court would be especially ready to resolve those splits, just as the Supreme Court will usually grant cert to resolve disputes between a circuit court and a state court within the circuit. (And, surely litigants would advise the divisions of their sister’s decision, and the division panels would be hesitant to create such a division split.) The White Commission solution isn’t perfect. But, it has the virtues of (a) allowing for even distribution of caseloads after a split; (b) not creating a one-state circuit; (c) allowing the full Ninth Circuit to maintain its administrative setup and save most of the cost of a circuit split; and (d) creating a precedent (and experiment) for future circuit divisions.

I note that I would change my position if I had a clerkship lined up in the proposed Twelfth Circuit’s territory, given that it appears that the headquarters of the Circuit would be in Las Vegas. What happens at oral arguments stays at oral arguments….

UPDATE: Aha! It appears I spoke too soon. Howard links to a Senate bill that would split the Ninth Circuit, but which also provides for the new Twelfth Circuit headquarters to be located in Phoenix. Oh well, I’m sure that will be just as fun for those clerks from places like Fairbanks and Missoula. Phoenix: All the heat of Las Vegas, none of the…well, everything else that makes Vegas Vegas.

The Vast Wasteland

Monday, October 17th, 2005

I’m paying for every channel my cable company offers, but I’m watching less tv than ever. I probably watched more tv that semester in college when I was rooming with Sebastian and our cable was cut off because we forgot to pay the bill for about four months. I used to watch tv all the time, but that was in the days before cell phones and high-speed internet. Plus, there’s really a lot of crap on tv nowadays. I’m just not very enthusiastic about watching any shows. For the first time I can remember — probably ever — I don’t feel like there’s a single show on television I regret missing if I happen to miss an episode. I know there are some good shows out there, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Extras” on HBO, and “Arrested Development” on Fox. But I have an overall “meh” feeling about them.

So what do I watch? Aside from sports, not a lot. I’ve enjoyed the episodes of “Everybody Hates Chris” that I’ve seen, and I like “My Name is Earl” and “The Office.” “Nip/Tuck” remains my guilty pleasure. But I haven’t seen every episode of any of those shows. I’ll pick back up on Fox’s Sunday night lineup after the baseball season’s over, I’m sure. I started out taping a few things on my DVR, but now I don’t even bother, because I know I’m not going to care enough to watch them. There are other shows I watch if I happen to be in front of the tv when they’re on, like the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters,” but I’m not making any appointments around it.

One thing that I know I’ll be watching is a movie premiering on HBO tonight, “Last Best Chance.” Here’s an interesting “New Yorker” comment on it. The hour-long film was produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on the dangers of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. You can order a free copy of the movie from the NTI web site linked above. The movie, starring Fred Thompson as the President, is a documentary-style look at what would/will happen if/when terrorists gain control of nuclear weapons. There seems to be an intent to scare people into action, and the producers figure (rightly, I’d guess) that an HBO airing of the movie is going to create a wider public consciousness of the issue than some dry hearing on C-SPAN. Anyway, I’m thinking it’s worth an hour.

This post started out as just a mention of “Last Best Chance,” but it got me thinking about how little tv I actually watch these days. I suppose the easy explanation is that I’m spending more time online and more time reading, combined with how much crap is on the air. But if you think I’m missing anything, feel free to let me know. Commenting just to inform me that the British version of “The Office” was better doesn’t count.

UPDATE: I like when I write about something before one of the big boys gets ahold of it. Usually I have a thought of something to blog about, but before I can get it posted, some other site takes the wind out of my sails. Instead, after I wrote about how crappy tv is, Slate had a story up about the future of television. The author suggests that tv learn from the music industry’s mistakes and embrace on-demand digital transfers as something of a super-a-la-carte system. It reminds me of a similar “future of tv” discussion I saw several years ago. One person said, “In the future, you’ll have 1000 channels,” but the other person said, “No, in the future, you’ll have one channel — yours.” This seer meant that we would be able to pick our own programming, without the dictates of the networks’ bundling two “Apprentices” for every “Office.” Obviously, TiVo and related devices have helped this along. I know that I would rather not watch tv than have to watch it all, including commercials.

UPDATE: Also on Slate, here is a review of “Last Best Chance.” It’s somewhat critical: it recognizes the noble aims of the movie, but argues that the film is too “subtle” for Americans looking for carnage-as-entertainment. I guess the author would have preferred — and thinks America needs — another “The Day After.” I can see the point, although the point of the movie is how it will be too late once we see the carnage. Yes, we have to motivate people based on suppositions, and hopes of what might never happen. But here’s the thing. If we’re successful, we’ll never really know it. We need to come to grips with that reality — that all the necessary hard work won’t be flashy, and won’t sell any movie tickets, and will be almost completely invisible. But our numbness is what the terrorists count on. If anything, I thought the movie made it look too easy — with only a few weeks’ notice, we were almost able to stop the plot. In real life, we won’t be that lucky. Unless we do something now. I know: We could reinstate the estate tax to pay for it! Anyway, one final quibble. The Slate reviewer says “Last Best Chance” was poorly acted, but never mentioned the fine work by Rico!

We’re going to be in Iraq for how long?

Monday, October 10th, 2005

U.S. closes Rhein-Main Air Base After 60 Years (via MSNBC)

I don’t make things difficult. That’s the way they get, all by themselves.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

Web MD says that “a dislocated jaw occurs when the lower jawbone (mandible) is pulled apart from one or both of the joints connecting it to the base of the skull at the temporomandibular (TM) joints.” That is the fancy way of saying that what I did on Thursday night hurt like a sonofabitch. I wish there was a good story behind it, but there isn’t. I cracked my jaw and dislocated it on the left side (at least that’s what my dentist believes and from the pain I am in I am inclined to agree). My bottom jaw is crooked, though not obviously so, and I cannot close my jaw entirely. I was probably not the best company this weekend, as I frequently (continually?) moaned in pain while trying to eat. From what I understand, whining is not an attractive quality. Advil is not helping, so I’m going to the doctor tomorrow morning. I hope that we can get this resolved without resorting to the Martin Riggs-school of treatment for dislocated joints.

In other news, Onion reports notwithstanding, if President Bush is “the most brilliant man she [has] ever met” then I humbly suggest that Harriet Miers needs to get out more. Frankly, so does Jor-El, err, I mean Nicolas Cage.