Friday, March 22, 2013

Punxsutawney Phil charged with 'misrepresentation of spring' in Ohio

Facing death in Ohio?
When a fat rodent falsely raises the hopes of millions of Americans, a price must be paid.

At least that's the tounge-in-cheek theory of Butler County, Ohio County Prosecutor Michael T. Gmoser, who, according to the AP, today indicted Punxsutawney Phil with "purposely, and with prior calculation and design, [causing] the people to believe that spring would come early," a "crime" amounting to a felony "against the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio." (It's apparently been cold there, too.)

Gmoser is demanding the death penalty for Phil.

In their linked article, Amanda Lee Myers and Mark Scolforo attempt to excuse their failure to obtain a statement from the accused by noting that Punxsutawney Phil's phone number is unlisted. They did note, however, that "Bill Deeley, president of the Punxsutawney club that organizes Groundhog Day, said Phil has a lawyer and would fight any extradition attempt by Ohio authorities."

Myers and Scolforo also note that Gmoser seems to have given a prosecutorial pass to "Ohio's own forecasting groundhog, Buckeye Chuck." (If our local newspapers reported any groundhog observations from Brookfield or Lincoln Park Zoos this year they were too embarrassed to allow the stories to be archived on Lexis.)

Meanwhile, Fake Science provides an alternate suggested punishment for Punxsutawney Phil. On second thought, Mr. Gmoser's recommendation may be more humane....

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Unless you're a future Hall of Famer with lots of other options, don't be "insulted" by a low-ball offer

The Chicago Bears have parted ways with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

In his day Urlacher was a pretty darn good player -- a worthy successor to Bears MLBs Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, and Bill George, all of whom are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mr. Urlacher is likely to join them in due course.

However, like all of us, Urlacher has aged. He has lost a step. Injuries have sidelined him, and the cumulative effects of a long NFL career are impossible to overlook.

But Mr. Urlacher is not just a victim of time, but of timing: The Bears parted company with Lovie Smith after the end of last season and the new coaching staff owes Urlacher nothing but the respect due to any one-time great. To make matters worse, Urlacher's contract has expired. He is a free agent.

If Lovie Smith & Co. had been retained Urlacher would still have had to take a big pay cut to stay with the team. If he wants to play anywhere, he's going to have to take a mere fraction of the $7.5 million he made only last season. He and his agent knew that; they had to know that.

Nevertheless, Mr. Urlacher has made it known that he is "insulted" by the $2 million offer ($1 million guaranteed) made by the new regime in Halas Hall. It wasn't an offer, Urlacher snarled, it was an "ultimatum." Take it or leave it. So... he left. (Well, maybe he left -- the team says there was a mutual agreement to stop talking -- Urlacher says the Bears closed the door on him.)

Where he lands from here -- whether he can find work anywhere else -- is uncertain. If he gets a seemingly 'big' contract from anyone it's a safe bet that it would be incentive-laden, with the gaudy-sounding money coming at the end of the contract, after Mr. Urlacher is likely to be discarded by that successor team. Maybe he'll find a team willing to guarantee more than the Bears -- but don't bet the mortgage money on it.

But even if Mr. Urlacher finds large dollars on the free agent market, I don't think he should have been "insulted" by the reported $2 million offer. I'd guess that, however unenthused the agent may have been about the $2 million proposal, Mr. Urlacher's agent probably said something similar to his client when conveying the offer.

Establishing value, whether for a football player's contract or in a court case, is a difficult process, with both sides in the negotiation jockeying for advantage. But the offer of any amount (well, almost any amount) shows a willingness to successfully complete the negotiation. Mr. Urlacher may admit, on some level, that his skills are not what they once were, but he clearly does not think he has fallen as far as the Bears' reported offer would indicate. The Bears thought they could survive without Mr. Urlacher, but they were at least interested in trying to find a way to keep him on the roster.

But the Bears had other concerns besides the current value of Mr. Urlacher's skills: They have cap worries, other salaries to negotiate, money that must be set aside for draft picks. All of these figured into the number they pushed across the table to Mr. Urlacher and his agent.

And, of course, the Bears may very well have said, or at least intimated, that this $2 million offer was the best they could do and that they could not possibly budge off that figure. Something like this happens in almost every negotiation.

And sometimes it may even be true.

In negotiating a settlement in a court case, there is usually only one way to test the seriousness of the other side's position: Keep talking. (Mr. Urlacher said his agent tried to make a counter and was rebuffed.)

Mr. Urlacher may have other options. He can use the Bears' offer as a starting point in 'shopping' his services to other NFL teams. Of course, he might have been able to do that without cutting ties with the Bears. On the other hand, maybe the Bears' offer really was an ultimatum. Maybe Mr. Urlacher doesn't particularly care to play for the new Bears coaching staff; maybe he feels that, if he has to subject his skills to scrutiny by a new coaching staff somewhere, it might as well be anywhere.

It's difficult, especially in face-to-face negotiations, not to take offers and evaluations personally, sometimes deeply so. Strong emotions can cloud good judgment, however. This is why, in an age where full-blown litigation has become prohibitively expensive, many cases are resolved with the assistance of a mediator. A neutral who is dedicated only to helping the parties reach a mutually acceptable agreement can help negotiating parties get past the emotional surges that follow from "low-ball" offers or "outrageous" demands.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Juicy roles for judges in the Golden Age of Hollywood

Lawyers fare badly in popular entertainments. If the butler didn't do it, it's a safe bet that the lawyer did.

Even on TV shows about lawyers, lawyers often fare badly. After all, although Perry Mason won nearly every case (Wikipedia tells us that Mason actually lost two cases during the long run of the series,"The Case of the Terrified Typist" and again in "The Case of the Deadly Verdict") his victories all came at the expense of D.A. Hamilton Burger.

How the heck did Burger ever stay in office?

In one sense judges fare better than lawyers in popular entertainments; at least they're not the usual suspects. But that's mostly because they're nearly invisible. While there are certainly exceptions (Fred Gwynne in 1992's My Cousin Vinny comes immediately to mind), in the the ordinary course, to the extent they exist at all on stage or screen, judges are typically bit players with lines like, "Overruled," or, sometimes, "Sustained." If an actor is lucky enough to land a recurring role as a judge in a courtroom drama, and if he or she has a particularly good agent, he or she might even get to bang a gavel every couple of weeks.

It was not ever thus. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, in some our best-loved movie classics, there were some meaty, meaningful roles for judges. Let me share a few of my favorites here.

Cary Grant played Nick Arden, a lawyer, in My Favorite Wife (1940). His first wife, Ellen, played by Irene Dunne, was lost at sea and presumed drowned. After seven years, Grant is ready to have Dunne declared legally dead -- and he's ready to marry again, this time to Bianca, played by Gail Patrick. The matters are set for the same day in the courtroom of Judge Bryson, played by Granville Bates.

Image obtained here.

Of course, that would also be the day that Irene Dunne returns home, rescued from a desert island by a passing Portuguese freighter.

It turns out Ellen wasn't the only survivor on the island. She was stranded all that time with Stephen J. Burkett, played by Randolph Scott (who does a fine Johnny Weissmuller imitation). She called him "Adam;" he called her "Eve." Nick Arden /Cary Grant is jealous, and eventually arrested for bigamy. Judge Bryson is called upon to sort out the mess:
Judge Walter Bryson: Who are you?
Stephen Burkett: Well, your honor...
Nick Arden: Oh, he was on the island with her. He's not important to this case.
Judge Walter Bryson: I'll decide what's important to the case. What island?
Nick Arden: The island where my wife stayed for seven years, your honor.
Judge Walter Bryson: They were on an island together for seven years?
Nick Arden: Yes, your honor.
Judge Walter Bryson: Not alone?
Nick Arden: Yes.
Judge Walter Bryson: Hmm. Same island?
Nick Arden: Yes.
Judge Walter Bryson: Is that in the brief?
Nick Arden: No, your honor!
Judge Walter Bryson: Oh, that should be in the brief. That's the most interesting part of the case.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) is not just a holiday classic, it may be the most lawyer-friendly movie ever made. John Payne has the romantic lead as lawyer Fred Gailey, but the Assistant D.A., played by Jerome Cowan, is also sympathetic. And Gene Lockhart plays Judge Henry X. Harper, who desperately wants to find a way not to lock up Santa Claus in an insane asylum, especially after his friend and political adviser Charlie, played by William Frawley, acquaints him with the likely consequences.

(You know, for years my father had me half-convinced that Gene Lockhart was Lassie's grandfather. Well, Gene's daughter was June Lockhart, and she played the mother on the old Lassie TV show....)

Frank Capra often had good parts for judges in his movies. Speaking of insanity trials, that's H.B. Warner framed between Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur during the climactic trial scene in 1936's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

But the best role for a judge in a Capra classic was probably Harry Davenport's in 1938's You Can't Take It With You.

Harry Davenport
It's not a big part, but Davenport plays an integral role in the big crowd scene that is a staple in all the great Capra films. He has to fine Grandpa Vanderhof (played by Lionel Barrymore) $100 for manufacturing fireworks without a license, but the packed courtroom, filled with Grandpa's friends and neighbors, surges forward to pay the fine for him. The judge tries to maintain order, but he is quickly carried away by the popular sentiment, smiling benevolently as he tosses a coin of his own into the hat that's been passed.

(That Lionel Barrymore could really act. How else to explain his transformation from the nicest man in the world in You Can't Take It With You to the meanest in Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life?)

Harry Davenport played a judge again in 1947's The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Of course, Myrna Loy was the judicial star of that picture; she played Judge Margaret Turner, who leaps to all the wrong conclusions when her baby sister, Susan (Shirley Temple!) develops a crush on artist Richard Nugent, played by Cary Grant (yes, we're back to him). Davenport plays Judge Thaddeus Turner, Margaret's great-uncle.

Image obtained from IMDb.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is anything but a courtroom drama. Although it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, many in the first-run audience 66 years ago would have been unfamiliar with the idea of a female judge. Modern viewers will be uncomfortable with the idea of Cary Grant being required to squire Shirley Temple around town, particularly as an alternative to incarceration (all the while falling for the more age-appropriate Myrna Loy). And the age difference between the "sisters" is about as plausible as, oh, the age difference among the brothers in The Sons of Katie Elder. But that's an entirely different list.