Archive for October, 2006

A Dog of a Case

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

I understand why Fark has a “Florida” tag, given all the inanity that percolates up from the Heat Stroke State. It seems like whenever I’m looking for an odd story, I’m rarely disappointed by looking south. Anyway, here’s the latest one.

A Louisiana couple say their two dogs were removed from a post-Katrina animal shelter and ended up at a Florida humane society chapter. The Florida agency gave up the dogs for adoption to two separate Florida residents. Now the Louisianans want their dogs back, and argue that the Florida shelter shouldn’t have let the dogs go. The Florida possessors want to keep the dogs, and one woman argues that it isn’t even the same dog. (I hope her lawyer uses the classic alternative argument tactic: You had no dogs; If you had dogs, you didn’t lose them; If you lost them, she didn’t adopt them; If she did adopt them, she doesn’t have to return them…).

Two things really struck me about this story. First, the vehemence of some of the commenters at the newspaper’s website is ridiculous. There are comments accusing the Florida people of stealing the dogs and suggesting they will burn in hell for having done so. All this when it certainly appears that the adopters made, at most, an honest mistake of trusting a shelter that might not have had the legal right to give away the dogs. Is it the duty of prospective pet owners to investigate the ownership of animals they would like to adopt at a shelter? And that’s even assuming it’s the same dog! Of course, my nonscientific impression is that people who feel compelled to post comments on newspaper web sites tend to be the kind of people to jump to conclusions of guilt based on the slimmest of factual bases. There’s certainly no indication that the adopters acted maliciously. This story seems especially unsuited to the kind of vitriol posted today.

Second, the judge in the case decided that the Louisiana folks had a colorable enough claim that the Florida possessors should post a bond to maintain possession of the dogs through the duration of the trial. Any guesses what that bond was? I won’t make you click through to find out, but I was surprised to see that it was $200,000! I don’t do any property cases, but that seems incredibly high to me. You can buy a whole lot of puppy chow with two hundred grand. Maybe the judge was going by some kind of guideline, but I have trouble understanding where a number that high came from. The defendants suggested $1500 (for a purebred St. Bernard) and $750 (for a shepherd mix) for the bond, and even if a higher bond than those suggestions was appropriate, is there no amount less than $200,000 that would have been sufficient? I could see having a high bond when the property is something expensive that we’re worried might disappear before the trial ends, like, say, a yacht or a classic painting, or something the loss of which will cause the plaintiff to lose money while the trial goes on, like a money-making patent or something. But these dogs, whatever their sentimental value, don’t cost $200,000, and imposing a bond that high suggests, counterintuitively, that the defendants would try to get rid of the dogs prior to judgment. A bond that high, which will probably force the Florida defendants to surrender the dogs to the Louisiana plaintiffs, is nothing less than a pre-judgment that the plaintiffs are the rightful owners.

These two developments — the unhinged commentary and the exorbitant bond — point to the tension in the law over how to treat animals. Pets are property. Note that I didn’t say “just property.” But reading those comments, and seeing the judge’s reaction, indicates that they are treating these animals like they’re people. This story and the comments wouldn’t be out of place in relation to a custody dispute over a kid named Bernard Saint, instead of a St. Bernard dog. If animal-lovers want pets to have some sort of special status in the law (quasi-property, quasi-family law?), they should call their legislators. Until then, it doesn’t make sense to twist property law out of whack because a judge can’t say no to a wagging tail and a wet nose.

If I were a Property professor, I might consider putting this case on my exam. No, I wouldn’t automatically ding the “Pets Are People Too” crowd, but they’d have to give me some justification for treating animals specially in property law, as well as some rational way such a system would apply broadly, in addition to these idiosyncratic tearjerker cases. Also, I wonder what kind of precedent Florida residents might want to apply for future hurricane-induced pet/owner separations. And, finally, as one thoughtful commenter to the news story suggests, what duties do the Louisiana residents owe their dogs? If we want to give animals special treatment in the law, does that mean pet owners owe their animals the same duty of care that parents owe children? Would these commenters be so kind to Louisiana parents who dropped their kids off at a shelter and lost track of them for over a year?

Two from TNR

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Two items that caught my eye in the last few days at The New Republic:

1. In his comment on why former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner decided not to run for President, Ryan Lizza drops this nugget: “One night in New Hampshire, after a few drinks at a pool hall in a college town, the conversation turned to the political troubles of another potential ’08 contender. I told a story that had been making the rounds about how this politician once spit on his wife.” Well, now my gossipy curiosity is piqued. Any ideas who that charming politico might be? Note: I’m not inviting rank speculation, and since I don’t want to be sued for libel, I hereby disclaim any guesses you make.

2. In this piece, Amy Sullivan discusses David Kuo’s book about how the White House has manipulated and lied to evangelicals. According to Sullivan, liberals have not capitalized on the book’s revelations because they don’t believe them: liberals’ cognitive dissonance prevents them from accepting anything that is contrary to their assumption that the Bush administration is working all-out towards installing a theocracy. Interestingly, Sullivan doesn’t really suggest that liberals should court evangelicals, but says that liberals “could at least depress turnout by stoking evangelical anger at the Bushies.” Ah, the noble “None of the Above” message!

It’s sad that liberals seem to have so little chance at getting many votes from disgruntled evangelicals. Of course, that’s due in part to some of the positions liberals take; I won’t deny that. But wouldn’t it be better for Democratic candidates to at least try to get a few of those votes, instead of just hoping those folks don’t vote at all? One way would be to take a stand on human rights, especially in Darfur, which has become a major cause for many evangelicals. Another is to portray a campaign for social justice, economic opportunity, and the welfare state safety net as following statements like this from many liberals is that there is a cognitive dissonance on the part of the evangelicals, too. By and large, they probably won’t believe liberals who talk in religious terms, even those who used to teach Sunday School in Arkansas. I think a lot of evangelicals believe that most liberals are simply anti-religion. They probably make exceptions for African American Democrats like Illinois Senator Barack Obama or Tennessee Congressman/Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. (who shot one of his Senate ads in a church). But I think liberals can and should talk about the values they have in common with evangelicals, whether they ascribe those values to the explicit teachings of Jesus or some more ambiguous belief system. Sure, for some evangelicals, the bad will outweigh the good. But there is a way to talk in a language evangelicals understand, without looking like apostates to fellow-liberals, and it might even win a few votes. (Or, as Sullivan’s realpolitik posits, it might dissuade evangelicals from holding their nose, swallowing their pride, and voting for the GOP.) So why not try?

UPDATE: PG had a thoughtful comment to this post, and my response to her ran long enough that I just decided to run it here.

I guess I was speaking more specifically about “values issues,” and hoping that liberals don’t cede what common ground on those issues they could find with evangelicals. I agree that for most other issues, liberals don’t need to ask, How Would Jesus Spin? But on the other hand, my impression is that many evangelicals are single-issue voters (or, “values voters” voting based on a set of values issues), and that those issues are at least the door liberals have to go through to be able to win on some other issue. That is, liberals (and perhaps Romney and Guliani) would have to convince evangelicals they’re not godless heathens before convincing evangelicals to vote for them based on non-religious issues.

I think your comparison to feminists is apt, but my impression is that evangelicals are more likely to see in religious terms issues that folks like me might not perceive as religious. To take your example, some evangelicals are strong enviromentalists because of the Biblical command to take care of God’s creation. Of course, many others have no problem extracting as much as they can of the world’s resources thanks to the line in Genesis about God giving Man “dominion” over the earth and animals. That’s a spiritual debate, but it underscores how many of the issues are, for the evangelicals, spoken in “the language of the belief set.”

Now, maybe I’m overstating it, and these concerns aren’t foremost in the mids of evangelicals when they make their decisions, and might only be post hoc rationalizations of, say, why they bought an SUV. But my sense is that evangelicals can talk about most issues in that language, whereas (again to use your example), I don’t know if many feminists could talk about environmentalism in feminist terms (without getting into new agey “Mother Earth” stuff).

Falling back on a sports example, it reminds me of Alabama football fans I know. They have a big rivalry with Tennessee, so many of them drink Kentucky bourbon instead of Tennessee bourbon, to avoid any interaction with the Volunteer State. Likewise, evangelicals can cast in religious terms issues that liberals might think are fairly mundane. So my suggestion is that liberals should at least understand that tendency/ability, and at a minimum, be able to make an argument that their course is the more moral one, even if they don’t paint it in explicitly religious terms.

Thanks to PG for giving me a chance to flesh this out a little more.

Video Killed the Radio Star…and Caused Autism

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post or two about the controversy over mercury in vaccines, and whether those vaccines caused autism. The Artist Formerly Known as the Slithery D (and my co-blogger Fitz) accused me of being part of the conspiracy crowd. Dylan’s exact words were that I was “an anti-vaccine radical.” My response was that nothing could be further from the truth: I am in favor of vaccinations; I noted more than once that any link between vaccines and autism wasn’t proven; and my main point was basically that maybe we shouldn’t be pumping kids full of mercury, regardless of whether it causes autism.

Anyway, I swore off the subject because I didn’t want to get embroiled in it and accused of going Grassy Knoll on autism. Well, I decided to wade back in because today was an important day for autism research.

First, scientists at Vanderbilt University announced that they have found a gene mutation that increases the risk of developing autism. And, a team of scientists from Cornell Univerisity and Indiana University-Purdue University announced that early childhood television viewing shows a statistically significant correlation with autism: the more tv kids watched before age three, the higher their rates of autism. At Slate, Gregg Easterbrook calls this finding a “potential bombshell in the autism debate.”

The important disclaimers apply here, too. The genetic mutation doesn’t seem to cause autism; it merely increases the risk of developing it. And the other study doesn’t prove that tv-watching causes autism; it merely suggests it might be one factor. So I’m going to be the last one to declare the autism riddle solved. (And, as a belated mea culpa, just in case I ever appeared to give credence to the vaccine theory, I’m sorry. That theory is wrong.)

Still, these are important developments, and I thought they were worth noting, my promises to avoid the debate notwithstanding. I suppose the next stage is millions of lawsuits against the television industry, so all you lawyers better get in on the ground floor — this could provide more billable hours than asbestos!

UPDATE: Freakonomist Steven Levitt is skeptical of a tv/autism link. Okay. I’m not going to have kids, so I’m not going to worry about it anymore. And besides, there’s some tv I need to go watch.

A Day at the Cinema

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

I broke my lifelong rule this weekend and went to a movie by myself for the first time ever. The occasion was The Departed. Freaking awesome. It was a little different from its source material, the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, and I might could have a quibble here and there. But still, it was the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. Damon and DiCaprio were solid, Nicholson will win another Oscar, Sheen was very good. But Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg were my favorites, real icing on the cake. (Baldwin acted as if his character from Glengarry Glen Ross were now a cop. I half-expected to get the “ABC” speech.) It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s very, very good. Highly recommended.

Milbarge at Large: "Hey, kids, it’ll grow back!" Edition

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

What I’m doing at work: Lawd-a-mercy, I’ve been busy. I’ve been seriously in the weeds for a while. I’ve been working longer hours than I can remember, skipping lunches, the whole deal. Nobody told me the law was a job! I thought it was a profession! The sad thing is that even if I could talk about it, I don’t have much interesting to say. My work hasn’t been terribly fascinating lately; I’ve just had a lot of it. About the neatest thing has been a case where two of the major players have the same obscure name. It’s not quite as confusing as the two Emmett Fitz-Humes at our law school, but I works with what I gots.

What I’m doing at home: This has been a mess. A little rain caused a big leak in my roof. My DVR had a meltdown and lost a bunch of stuff I wanted to watch — likely scuttling a movie review post. I’ve had some family matters necessitating some unplanned travel. I’m glad September is over.

What I’m watching: I’ve been watching “Studio 60,” although I haven’t gotten to this week’s episode yet. I’m still giving it time. It’s enjoyable enough. Also haven’t gotten a chance to watch the premiere of “Friday Night Lights,” but I’m looking forward to it. A few movies: Down in the Valley: I think I saw what they were trying to go for here, but I’m not sure they pulled it off. Not bad but not great. I Am a Sex Addict: Amusing enough. The trouble I had is that the first nine-tenths of the film are about the director/star’s problem, and the very end is about the big solution, so it feels a little too cheap/easy. But I did like the way it was shot as a semi-documentary, and the director’s asides. Brick: I liked it a lot. It’s a classic film noir murder mystery set in a high school. That will either appeal to you or not, I guess. If you like noir and can get past the snappy-tough dialogue coming from teenagers, I recommend it.

What I’m reading: I’m in between books at the moment, which probably means a book review post is coming soon. I just picked up a mystery called Sharp Objects and Chuck Klosterman’s new one because I was looking for something lighter.

What I’m thinking about: I actually have some thoughts about the Mark Foley mess, but I’m going to stay out of it, I think. I’d bet money that Foley’s won’t be the last resignation we’ll see in all this, though. (I mean members of Congress resigning from Congress, not just staffers and not just members resigning from leadership spots.) And I’d bet a lot of money that someone finds a Democrat who’s been “overly friendly” with a page.

I’m also thinking about: some other political stories I don’t want to talk about; college football; relationships; revamping some stuff on this site; something to write on my other site; my resume; a trip I’ve got to take to a place I’ve never been — the second in two weeks; the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Not necessarily in that order.