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Welcome to Law Stars, LawCrossing's sparkling new showcase honoring stellar American lawyers. And it is about time. Top stars in all professions receive their accolades. Hollywood awards Oscars, Broadway stars win Tonys. Athletes take home trophies, rings and MVP awards. Standouts in various fields receive everything from Nobel prizes to Pulitzers to Congressional Medals of Honor. And let's not forget those cool little MTV moonmen. Industries and professions recognize excellence or at least notoriety by handing out awards as often as possible. Now, here on LawCrossing, each week we will honor and celebrate a Law Star - a living, working lawyer whose contributions to the profession and the nation are uniquely inspiring to the rest of us.
I am your digital MC and official law stargazer Jesse Londin. I will talk to newly minted Law Stars about life, careers and working in the trenches of the most celebrated justice system in the world.
So without further ado, I am delighted to introduce the first Law Star, Justice William W. Bedsworth of the California Court of Appeal, perhaps the funniest judge in the land, and yes, you can refer to him by his familiar moniker, Beds, but probably not during an appearance in his courtroom.
As jurists across California and beyond know, just 'to get it out of his system,' Beds pens the column, "A Criminal Waste of Space," the one-of-a-kind contribution to legal scholarship in which readers may find the good judge critiquing California criminal jury instructions in light of the case of a mysteriously missing 500-pound pygmy hippopotamus in San Diego, or contemplating profound legal issues involving behavior like smuggling monkeys in underwear, or the protected right of citizens to give each other the finger.
Also famously, after hours Justice Bedsworth puts his judicial skills and temperament to the sporting test as an NHL goal judge at Mighty Ducks hockey games.
This eclectic Law Star — judge, writer, sports lover, self-proclaimed "technopeasant" and humorist — was born in Long Beach, California in 1947, where he says, "if you were a smart kid who wasn't good at math or science, they stamped pre-law on your college application and moved on to the next kid." He earned his B.A. from Loyola University and his J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Justice Bedsworth served as Deputy District Attorney, Orange County before being elected judge of Orange County Superior Court where he served for ten years. In 1997, Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to the Court of Appeal (4th District), which, he points out, means he has "months to consider the problems my colleagues on the trial bench resolve in twenty minutes."
We caught up with Justice Bedsworth online at the locale he has described as "the epicenter of American Libertarianism."
Q: Justice Bedsworth — or, may we call you Beds? — how does it feel to be the first-ever winner of the soon-to-be highly coveted title of Law Star? How will you celebrate your win?
A: "Beds" is what everybody calls me. If your name is McGuire, you get stuck with "Mac." Turns out if your name is Bedsworth, you're Beds. Who knew? I'm thrilled to be named a Law Star. Until now I've been either "the guy who writes the column" or "the guy who wrote the gay rights opinion" or "the guy who works for the NHL." "Law star" is a lot less cumbersome.
I plan to celebrate by getting a big star to sew onto my robe. After all, if Justice Rehnquist can have stripes . . .
Do I get a trophy or a letterman's jacket or something?
Q: A trophy is a great idea. Actually, we'd love to see you in a Law Stars jacket at pro hockey games. At the very least, a Law Stars hat, tee shirt or lapel pin. I'll have to ask my editor.
Now Beds, you are on record as saying, "basic lunacy...is a large part of my psyche..." Do you think most lawyers share this trait? To succeed or be happy in legal practice, do you believe it may help to be a bit of a lunatic?
A: No, I don't think lunacy is a plus. I'm an aberration. I really don't belong here. But I'm having a helluva good time.
Q: Speaking of a good time, in your very funny column, which is now available in your book, A Criminal Waste of Time — by the way, congratulations! — you write about real cases, law and the legal system. Some readers might think you make up some of the really wacky stuff. Are your stories all true? Why do you find American jurisprudence often so funny?
A: I not only don't make any of it up, I couldn't. The real world is a lot funnier than I could make up. What I can't figure out is why everybody else misses this stuff. How can the rest of our profession spend so much time on the dull stuff in the daily news and skip right over flying pigs and guys who smuggle monkeys in their pants.
Q: Some people think judges make law. When you decide cases brought by people challenging the wisdom of lawmakers, are you not making political judgments? And what is the worst legal precedent you ever had to follow?
A: I try very hard not to make law. I'm not sure how well I succeed, because so much of what I do is subjective. My view — like everyone else's — is colored by my life experiences. We don't just react to things differently because of our backgrounds and attitudes, we perceive them differently. So what I perceive as a clear distinction between two cases, another justice is liable to view as no distinction at all.
We're forced to draw very fine lines. Suppose I look at a case and make a judgment about what the statute requires, but find that the reading I thought appropriate leads to what I consider an unjust result. I'm going to go back and look at the statute some more. The law doesn't usually lead to unjust results, so maybe I'm making a mistake about what the legislature intended. Is that being result-oriented or is that having a decent respect for the judgment of the legislators? It's in the eye of the beholder, I'm afraid.
Worst precedent I ever had to follow? Nothing comes to mind. Law I hate most? Easy: the "knock and announce" rule in criminal law. But it's been around since the 16th century and it isn't going away. I have no problem following it: it's the law, and I understand and support its purpose. But I hate the results it leads to.
Q: Did you always want to become a judge? If you could be anything other than a judge, what would you be and why?
A: I wanted to be a lawyer when I was a sophomore in high school. Maybe earlier; I can't really remember. And I wanted to be a judge the first time one ruled against me. But if I'd had a decent high school guidance counselor, I'd be doing play-by-play for the Cucamonga Quakes today. I love sports — I'll watch anything where they keep score — and I love travel, so covering baseball or hockey (my favorites) would have been perfect for me. But, truth be told, my happiness has always been closely tied to the people around me, and I can't imagine a nicer bunch of people than I've found practicing law.
Q: Since LawCrossing is a career-oriented site, we want to ask: You are only in your fifties but you've already been a prosecutor, an appellate judge, a writer, and of course, an NHL goal judge. Based on your wealth of working experience, what advice would you give law students or young lawyers regarding how to set and achieve their goals? What should the next generation of lawyers learn from your career?
A: Career advice: If you really love it, stick with it; it'll work. If not, get the hell out and find something you do love. If you're smart enough to be a lawyer, you're smart enough to do something else you like more. The time you spent learning to be a lawyer was not wasted. No matter what you do in life, a legal education is a plus. We really do think differently.
What should you learn from my career? Absolutely nothing. Unless you plan on being as lucky as I have been, play it straight.
Q: You have written that you are "in the process of formulating a theory that for every law enacted in California, there is an Orange County Register reader who is violating it — purely as a matter of principle." It does appear that Americans want law, but they also want as much freedom from law as feasible. Other than the tendency of movie stars to become governors, how is California unique among the state jurisdictions?
A: Remember what I said about the knock and announce rule? It exists because the people who founded this nation feared and distrusted authority and sought to hinder government wherever they could. People aren't that different today. They still view government askance and want as little of it as possible in their lives — the difference is modern communications have made them aware of *some* things they very much want government to do, and they have a hard time figuring out how to reconcile those two viewpoints. With the exception of a few hard-core ideologues, nobody's politics are consistent nowadays.
California is like everyplace else . . . only more so. Our weather is so good we have a full year to cultivate craziness rather than just nine months like most everybody else. So we get a bumper crop every year.
Q: Finally, who would you name as your personal Law Stars or role models — living or not?
A: My earliest legal hero was Bill Douglas — strange choice of role model for a guy appointed to the bench by a Republican governor. But it was hard not to admire the fire in his belly. Now I use Douglas as a constant reminder of what I can't do. I can't impose my own sense of equity on legislative choice. They were elected to make those decisions and they have lots of experts advising them about the areas in which they legislate. I have neither their mandate nor their resources; it's unlikely I can make a better call based simply on my gut sense about what's "right."
My other hero is Benjamin Robbins Curtis, who dissented in Dred Scott, left the court over its decision in the case, and later represented Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial. Now that's a guy with some serious huevos.
And for living role models, too many to list. I've been blessed.