Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wait -- there wasn't a phone call to Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton after all?

Yesterday, I went off on a speculative binge. I imagined what Bruce Rauner might have said to Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton when he supposedly called them on Election Night.

That's what I heard him say he did, although his spokespeople are now suggesting that my ears were lying to me. President Cullerton says a Rauner staffer spoke briefly with one of his staffers but there was no direct communication; Speaker Madigan's spokesman is saying there's no record of any attempt by Mr. Rauner to speak with Mr. Madigan.

Eric Zorn had an interview with President Cullerton (one of the big differences between real reporting and mere blogging involves actually talking to people) from which Mr. Zorn developed the distinct, and to me unsettling, impression that, if Mr. Rauner wants the "temporary" income tax rate of 5% to become permanent (or if he wants any interim rate between the imminent 3.75% rate and 5%) he will, in essence, have to beg for it.

Now here's where I get confused: I thought that keeping the 5% rate was necessary to keep Illinois afloat as we paid down some of our pension liabilities and backlogged bills. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka -- hardly a Quinn partisan -- said a drop in the income tax rate from 5% to 3.75% next year will be like giving the state a heart attack.

If that is the case, it seems -- at best -- unseemly to engage in brinkmanship with the incoming governor on this issue. Our state's credit rating is already in the dumpster.

I'm no fan of paying taxes -- taxes are at best a necessary evil -- but the key word in that phrase is necessary. Past administrations failed to make pension payments, counting on investment income and a growing economy to make up the difference. Then came the Great Recession. Now we have reaped the whirlwind. We have to pay the piper -- and our retirees -- somehow. And, much as I don't like to pay it, the income tax is a far, far better option than Mr. Rauner's suggested tax on services. At least that's what I thought.

Clearly, although I try to pay attention, I don't understand politics. And for all his apparent success in other arenas, neither, I think, does Mr. Rauner. But is it really necessary to use the tax rate issue to teach the governor-elect that there are three branches of government? Isn't Mr. Rauner destined to find out soon enough that being head of the Executive branch means nothing unless he can secure the cooperation of the Legislature?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Mr. Rauner should have said to Mr. Madigan last night and other unsolicited advice to the Governor-elect

We have about 24 to 48 hours to digest the results of last night's election results before the mayoral race swings into high gear....

Photo of Mr. Rauner voting yesterday,
taken from the Glenview News website.
Bruce Rauner's own campaign workers booed during his victory speech last night when he mentioned that he had called House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. The TV Talking Heads were quick to praise Mr. Rauner's gesture, unpopular as it may have been in the hotel ballroom, pointing out that Mr. Rauner, who had until that moment put Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton on a par with Beelzebub in all of his public pronouncements, will need their cooperation if he is to have any chance to accomplish anything in his gubernatorial term.

But the Talking Heads didn't speculate, at least on the channel I watched, about what Mr. Rauner may have said.

Don't you wonder?

Here's the gist of what I imagine Mr. Rauner might have said: Since I know you are bound and determined to have the General Assembly make the "temporary" 5% income tax rate permanent, could you please get this done before I'm sworn in? Yes, I know Mr. Rauner expended millions on commercials prophesying that Gov. Quinn would do just this were he to be re-elected. And Mr. Rauner swore he'd insist on the rollback -- but that was never realistic. He simply does not have the votes in the legislature to accomplish this. Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton could wait until the new year to make the 5% tax rate permanent, forcing new-Gov. Rauner to veto the plan -- he absolutely would have to -- but a veto override, though it would render Rauner an irrelevancy at the outset of his term, may not be so sure a thing, even in a supposedly veto-proof General Assembly. Legislators who barely survived tight reelection races may be understandably skittish. Were the veto of the 5% income tax rate to somehow succeed, the plutocrats who run the credit rating agencies, Mr. Rauner's natural allies, would have no choice but to further downgrade the state's already terrible bond ratings. On the other hand, if a lame duck General Assembly makes the tax rate no-longer-temporary, Mr. Rauner can fulminate to his heart's extent from the sidelines, but without necessarily incurring potentially fatal damage to his credibility.

But that's just my imagination. Mr. Rauner may not have asked. But Mr. Rauner has stated ambitions for school funding, for property tax freezes, and other things that will cost money. Putting the income tax rate back to 3%, as much as he says he wants to, would presumably deprive Mr. Rauner of the opportunity to do much of anything except cut and prune spending and services. As an experienced corporate takeover specialist, Mr. Rauner may feel he knows all there is to know about cutting and pruning. But he may find that the lessons of the private sector do not readily translate to the public sphere.

If Mr. Rauner's budget plans remain somewhat nebulous, Mr. Rauner nevertheless packs for Springfield with two fully-formed ideas, both of them stinkers.

Even last night, Mr. Rauner was plumping for his term limits plan. Actually, we have a perfectly good term limits plan in place in this country already. It's called an election. Elections don't work very well as a term limits plan in Illinois most of the time -- but the problem here is not with elections per se, the problem we have is that Speaker Madigan is such a gifted map-maker. He has redrawn legislative districts in such a way as to prevent meaningful election contests just about everywhere, maximizing the strength of the State's Democratic voters, minimizing the impact of the state's Republicans. This does not make Mr. Madigan bad or evil; he is merely taking advantage of what the current law allows him to do. Mr. Rauner's term limits plan would, if it could be enacted (which it can't), force Mr. Madigan to give up the post of House Speaker. But it would not take the map-drawing pen from Mr. Madigan's hand. A truly non-partisan map drawing commission, on the other hand, just might succeed. The recent attempt to put a constitutional amendment allowing just such a commission failed in court, but the court may have provided a road map showing how the defects in the proposal can be cured.

The other truly bad idea Mr. Rauner floats is his service tax proposal. Basically, he would extend the sales tax on tangible goods to intangible services... like attorney's fees or hospital bills. Maybe some of the big law firms could absorb such a tax -- it might require only a software tweak -- assuming that well-heeled corporate clients are still willing to pay whatever Big Law requires, but a service tax would be a disaster for small service businesses generally (and small law firms in particular). Good Lord, we have enough trouble getting clients to pay bills now -- and Mr. Rauner would have us try and collect an extra 5 or 6 or 9% for the benefit of the State? Impossible.

And, of course, a service tax, like a sales tax, is just about as regressive a tax as one can imagine. That means it impacts poor people far more harshly than rich folks. If Mr. Rauner wishes to buy a new Timex to replace the one he wore out in his commercials, the sales tax on that item is a negligible portion of his vast income. But the poor person who buys the same watch pays a far greater share of his income as sales tax even though he pays the same sales tax as does Mr. Rauner.

Please, Mr. Rauner, drop this talk of term limits and service taxes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NBC bangs down the gavel on "Bad Judge"

NBC's Bad Judge will not be retained
On Election Day, the people have spoken. Or, at least, the Suits at 30 Rock have spoken: NBC's execrable "Bad Judge" has been cancelled, according to an article by Debra Cassens Weiss posted today on the ABA Journal website.

Weiss cites a strong letter of protest by the Florida Association for Women Lawyers as helping to push the show over the cliff. That, and bad ratings.

Still, I'd like to think my tough, but fair review ("Bad Judge, Worse TV") may have helped.

Maybe a little, anyway.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Voter ID statutes and a recent, real-life experience that prompts a question regarding same

One way you may give away your allegiance in the Culture Wars these days is by how you refer to statutes requiring voters to produce identification at the polls. These may be referred to as voter ID statutes, but the Red Meat Right refers to them as "vote fraud" statutes, and the True Blue Left calls them "voter suppression" laws.

To illustrate, just last Thursday Think Progress ran an article, "Surprise! The Roberts Court Just Halted A Voter Suppression Law."

The article refers to the recent case concerning the Wisconsin voter ID statute, Frank v. Walker. The Seventh Circuit heard arguments on the stay imposed by the Eastern District of Wisconsin against enforcement of the law on September 12, issuing an Order dissolving the stay that same day. 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 17653. The Order provided, in pertinent part,
After the district court's decision, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin revised the procedures to make it easier for persons who have difficulty affording any fees to obtain the birth certificates or other documentation needed under the law, or to have the need for documentation waived. Milwaukee Branch of NAACP v. Walker, 2014 WI 98, 851 N.W.2d 262 (July 31, 2014). This reduces the likelihood of irreparable injury, and it also changes the balance of equities and thus the propriety of federal injunctive relief. The panel has concluded that the state's probability of success on the merits of this appeal is sufficiently great that the state should be allowed to implement its law, pending further order of this court.

The appeals remain under advisement, and an opinion on the merits will issue in due course.
Due course rolled around on Monday, October 6, when the 7th Circuit issued its opinion in the Frank case. 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 19108. By Thursday, however, the United States Supreme Court had intervened to reinstate the original District Court stay. 2014 U.S. LEXIS 6734. The Supreme Court's Order provides:
The application to vacate the September 12, 2014 order of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is granted and the Seventh Circuit’s stay of the district court’s permanent injunction is vacated pending the timely filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari respecting case Nos. 14-2058 & 14-2059. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this order shall terminate automatically. In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the order shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.
Justice Alito dissented (joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas), conceding that there "is a colorable basis for the Court’s decision due to the proximity of the upcoming general election," but insisting that the application should be denied because there was no indication that the 7th Circuit "clearly and 'demonstrably' erred in its application of 'accepted standards.'"

In the Think Progress post, Ian Millhiser posits that the colorable basis conceded by Justice Alito is found in Purcell v. Gonzalez, 549 U.S. 1, 127 S.Ct. 5, 166 L.Ed.2d 1 (2006). In Purcell, Millhiser writes, "the Supreme Court explained that judges should be reluctant to issue orders affecting a state’s election law as an election approaches. 'Court orders affecting elections,' according to Purcell, 'can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase.'"

I confess that there is a part of me that does not understand the controversy: Elections are about getting more votes for your candidate than their candidate. This can be done in two ways, either by getting more of your voters to the polls (GOTV campaigns) or by keeping more of their voters away (voter suppression tactics). Serious political campaigns do some of both. Partisans of the Red Meat Right and the True Blue Left and anybody else who wants to see their candidate elected (and who can afford to do so) routinely engage in voter suppression tactics. What else would you call negative ads? Whether they are attack ads aired on TV or mailers sent on behalf of more local candidates, Candidate A does not run negative ads to excite his or her base. Rather, Candidate A (or his or her surrogates) run the ads to dampen the potential enthusiasm of undecided voters for Candidate B. If we can't get these votes, goes the thinking, we must make sure the other side can't get them either. (Studies show that, although staunchly opposed to Candidate A, some voters will, after a sufficient barrage of negative commercials targeting Candidate B, stay home on Election Day. How -- the disillusioned voter reasons -- can I vote for Candidate B, a candidate who is the catspaw of the [choose one] public employees unions - Welfare Lobby - Koch Brothers - Gun Lobby - Wall Street oligarchs and who kicks puppies besides?)

As a life-long resident of the Chicago area, and a registered voter in Chicago for over 30 years, I believe, for the most part, that voter fraud is -- in Illinois at least -- much less of a problem than it was in the Bad Old Days when Chicago's "river wards" vied with certain DuPage County precincts to see who could hold out longer and then 'deliver' for their candidate in a close statewide contest. Still, I have so far spurned early voting -- I want to make sure my vote is actually cast in my precinct and I don't want to rely on someone else to deliver it there -- and I always vote early in the morning on Election Day. I seem to recall one mayoral election where CTA service was mysteriously disrupted on the evening of election day, in what sure looked like an attempt to hold down a particular candidate's vote....

The True Blue Believers have a host of statistics that show that voter fraud prosecutions are virtually nonexistent and this is offered in support of an assertion that voter fraud does not exist.

Well... maybe. But, let's put it this way so as not to cast aspersions on anyone: For an elected prosecutor, or even an appointed prosecutor serving at the pleasure of the party controlling the White House, it would understandably be a higher priority to deal with voting irregularities if they threaten to drive your party from power than if such irregularities, to the extent they exist, help keep your party in power -- or don't make any difference in likely outcomes. Human nature being what it is, a reasonable person would investigate, and prosecute, more urgently in the former situation than in either of the latter ones. The absence of vote fraud prosecutions may mean there is no vote fraud, but it it may also mean that identifying and extirpating vote fraud is not a high priority because any vote fraud that does exist benefits the party in power or is not outcome-determinative.

This brings me to a recent, real-life experience. I begin by reiterating that I firmly believe our election process today to be cleaner than it was in my youth.

But we recently received a jury summons at home for my oldest child. She lives in Indianapolis these days, and has for five years now, where she is married and has a daughter. She is registered to vote in Indianapolis. She is licensed to drive in Indiana.

I was enlisted to 'take care of' the jury summons. After a couple of false starts, I found myself in the Jury Administration's Office in the Daley Center, asking for instructions. I was told to have my daughter send a letter, providing her current address and proof of her non-Illinois residence. She happened to be in town that very weekend, so it was easy to put the letter together and provide the requested copy of the driver's license. For good measure, in addition to sending the letter to Jury Administration, my daughter sent a copy of the letter (including a scanned copy of her Indiana driver's license) to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

This was in late June of this year.

We subsequently received our new voter registration cards in the mail. My oldest child has always received a new card, despite her move out of town. But this time -- surely this time -- she would be removed from the voter rolls. Right?

If you've stayed with me this far, you know where this is going: We received a new voter registration card for my oldest child pursuant to the July canvass.

So far as I know, no one has presumed to vote on my daughter's behalf in the past several years. But, apparently, the opportunity exists, and has existed for some time. I assume this is entirely innocent. But, given that these types of errors can occur, even when specific requests are made to remove a person from the voter rolls, why is it per se unreasonable to consider requiring some additional identification at the polls over and above voter registration?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Malala Yousafzai

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, is a co-recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

You may recall that Malala Yousafzai captured the world's attention when, in 2012, two brave, young Taliban fighters stopped the bus in which the girl was riding. One of them muscled his way into the school bus crowded with school children, courageously announced his intention to shoot them all if Malala did not identify herself -- and when she did, he heroically shot the defenseless, unarmed schoolgirl in the face at point-blank range. (A couple of other children were also wounded.) Somehow, Malala survived.

And the heinous crime committed by Malala that justified the Taliban's attempt to murder her? She had the temerity to blog about her desire to stay in school and receive an education on a BBC-sponsored, Urdu-language website.

The New York Times reported on October 13, 2012, just days after the botched murder attempt, that both Malala and her father remained on the Taliban's hit list. The Times article, by Declan Walsh, with Sana ul Haq and Ismail Khan contributing from Pakistan, stated,
Sirajuddin Ahmad, the spokesman for the Taliban in the Swat Valley, said that Ms. Yousafzai became a target because she had been "brainwashed" into making anti-Taliban statements by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai.

"We warned him several times to stop his daughter from using dirty language against us, but he didn't listen and forced us to take this extreme step," he said.

Both father and daughter remain on the Taliban's list of intended victims, he said.
But Malala has not been silenced by the Taliban's actions or it's threats.

Instead, on her 16th birthday, just last year, Malala was able to address the United Nations General Assembly:
"The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens," [said] Malala, who was wearing a pink shawl that belonged to assassinated Pakistan leader Benazir Bhutto. "They are afraid of women."

She called on politicians to take urgent action to ensure every child has the right to go to school.

"Let us pick up our books and pens," Malala summed up. "They are our most powerful weapons.

"One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
And today, Malala Yousafzai is announced as a winner of the Nobel Peace Price. Sometimes there is justice in the world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 8: Anniversary of the day the Midwest caught fire

Currier & Ives lithograph obtained from the Chicago Historical Society

You probably remember that October 8 is the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.

State and Madison after the Fire
School children are probably not required to memorize the gruesome statistics of the fire anymore, but they are readily accessible on Wikipedia: The fire destroyed an area about four miles long, averaging averaging 3/4 of a mile in width. Roughly 17,500 buildings were destroyed; property damage was estimated at $222 million. One in every three Chicago residents -- roughly 100,000 of the City's total 300,000 population -- was made homeless by the fire. There were 120 bodies recovered after the fire, but authorities estimated the actual death toll at up to 300.

Most folks don't remember this, but the Chicago fire destroyed the records of two Illinois counties -- Cook, of course, but also DuPage. In 1871 Naperville and Wheaton were literally up in arms over which town should be the seat of DuPage County and the county records were removed to Chicago for safekeeping.


And yet -- believe it or not -- the Great Chicago Fire was, in many ways, the smallest of three major fires in the Midwest on October 8, 1871. Over on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, a number of cities, including such widely scattered burgs as Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron, were damaged or lost entirely in a series of fires collectively referred to as the Great Michigan Fire. There were not as many lives lost in the Michigan fires, but more land and timber was damaged in these fires.

Mass grave at Peshtigo. © Deana C. Hipke.
There may have been 300 people killed in the Great Chicago Fire, but the mass grave shown in this picture, in a picturesque cemetery next to the converted church that serves as the Peshtigo Fire Museum, is the final resting place of roughly 350 unidentified victims of the Peshtigo Fire.

At least 1,200 people died in the Peshtigo Fire, roughly 800 in the town of Peshtigo alone (roughly half the population of the town); the total death toll may have been as high as 2,500. Whole families were wiped out; in many cases there was no one left, after the fire, to remember who'd been lost.

The firestorm was so intense that the flames jumped right across Green Bay, damaging large portions of the Door Peninsula. It also spread into the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan, ultimately damaging an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

One area that was not involved in the Peshtigo Fire, though it was in the path of the flames, was the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, in New Franken, Wisconsin.

Many believe that the Virgin Mary appeared at this site on October 9, 1859 to Adele Brise, a young Belgian woman. A church and school were built there because the Virgin told Brise to teach religion to children. According to the website of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay:
When the Peshtigo Fire spread across Green Bay on Oct. 8, 1871, area residents walked around the chapel grounds all night praying the rosary and carrying a statue of Mary. Everything outside that five-acre area was burned.

Every year on Oct. 8 people reenact the procession at the Shrine.
A church was also saved from disaster in Chicago, too, but the story is less impressive.

Fr. Arnold Damen, S.J. founded Holy Family Church in 1860 and St. Ignatius College in 1870 in what was then the middle of nowhere. But that isolated location was uncomfortably close to the infamous O'Leary barn when the Great Chicago Fire broke out, only about 3/4 mile away. Cecil Admams picks up the story in a Chicago Reader Straight Dope column from 2009 (emphasis in original):
When the Great Fire began, the wind was blowing out of the southeast. Holy Family and Saint Ignatius were directly west, and arguably would have escaped the flames had conditions remained unchanged, but Father Damen was taking no chances. In the version of the story I initially heard, he stood on the front porch of Saint Ignatius and prayed to the Almighty to spare his life's work. This was embroidery. In reality his prayer was offered up in Brooklyn, where he was preaching at the time. No matter; the Lord could hear him there just as well. Father Damen vowed that if his prayers were answered, he would keep seven vigil lights burning before an image of the Virgin.

The wind shifted. Formerly it had been driving the fire toward the outskirts of town; now it began to blow out of the southwest, pushing the fire northeast. You see the implications of this. The church and school were saved. Instead, the conflagration burned down the rest of Chicago.
But, Adams adds, the City Council did not hold a grduge: Damen Avenue was eventually renamed in Fr. Damen's honor.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Anita Baker's legal woes provide lessons for would-be litigants in small claims cases

Edited 5/9/18 to remove no-longer-functioning video link.

I heard this on the radio in the last couple of days: Singer Anita Baker is being sued by an attorney who says he stiffed her by not paying $69,000 in legal bills he incurred in fighting a suit brought by contractors who claimed Ms. Baker had failed to pay them $15,000 for painting they'd done at her home in the Detroit area.

This, I thought, was ideal fodder for a blog post. I have conversations with prospective clients almost every week about relatively small disputes. I always try to explain that smaller cases often take significant time to prepare and that fees could quickly become disproportionate to the amounts really at stake. But I've noticed that trying to explain this concept in general terms isn't always particularly effective. On the other hand, people pay attention to celebrities and stories about celebrities. This story, I thought, might provide a teaching moment.

Of course, the story wasn't quite as simple as the Chicago radio account made it out to be. I've tried to republish a Detroit TV story about the suit. Even if the video won't play on your device, however, I have this link to the TV story.

It appears that Ms. Baker has been involved in a number of suits with disgruntled -- and unpaid -- contractors of one sort or another, including lawyers.

Please understand: I'm not taking sides. Sometimes people try and take advantage of celebrities. Sometimes celebrities think their fame gives them license to engage in all sorts of anti-social behavior. I don't know, and don't pretend to know, whether Ms. Baker is justified in her refusals to pay.

Looking at the archives of the Detroit News on Lexis, I discovered that the present dispute arises from a 2010 suit filed by Ray A. Smith Painting and Decorating. According to Robert Snell's October 24, 2010 story, the painter alleged that Ms. Baker owed "$15,239.60 for work at her Grosse Pointe home last year, including painting the walls and ceiling of her son's bedroom, replacing a rotten doorsill, removing water-damaged plaster in her living room and other painting."

Ms. Baker did not respond to the suit. She was defaulted. Elisha Anderson's March 21, 2014 story in the Detroit News reported that a bench warrant had been issued for Baker's arrest on account of her failure to appear "at a creditor's examination" in September 2013. The painter's attorneys had pursued post-judgment proceedings trying to collect on the default judgment. In Illinois, we'd call this a Citation to Discover Assets hearing. The bottom line, though, was that -- three and a half years after filing suit -- the painters had not been paid. And this was long after they'd won their suit.

There are a number of lessons here for would-be litigants in small claim cases:
  1. For Defendants -- If you are sued, the worst thing you can do is ignore the suit. If you had a basis on which to oppose the claim -- maybe the painters really did do a bad job -- when you allow the suit to go into default, you almost certainly give up your rights to assert that defense, or those defenses. In Illinois, at least, once 30 days have passed after the entry of a default judgment, your 'best' chance to open up the judgment is under §2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure. That will be difficult, if not impossible. And, either way, it will be expensive. You'd be far better off to meet the suit head on in a timely manner -- and, if you owe the money, you may be able to work out a payment plan or even a discount.
  2. For Defendants -- If you haven't followed my good advice above, and have instead allowed the suit to go into default, and if the case was filed against you in Illinois, interest will accumulate on the judgment at 9% per year. By statute. Non-negotiable. And all the costs of post-judgment proceedings -- such as Citation proceedings -- will be tacked on.
  3. For Plaintiffs -- It doesn't matter how 'good' your case is. It doesn't matter how quickly you 'win.' (A default judgment is a win.) It still can take years to get paid. You may never get paid: Ms. Baker presumably has the money to satisfy this judgment -- but the party you sue may not. You can't get blood from a stone -- and you have court costs to pay and perhaps your attorney. Sure, many attorneys take cases on a contingent fee basis -- meaning they don't get paid until you do -- but that typically happens in personal injury cases, where there is a presumably solvent insurer making business decisions on the other side. You might get an attorney to take your collection case on a contingent fee -- but, one way or the other, the attorney's fee is coming from your bottom line. Unless there's a statute or contract provision that allows for it, the other side is not going to have to pay your attorney's fees.
The attorney who is now suing Ms. Baker was engaged after the bench warrant was issued. The first thing he had to do was keep Ms. Baker out of jail. Robert Allen's story in the April 19 Detroit News reported that Ms. Baker's new attorney was also going to sue the painting contractor and attempt to set aside the default on the grounds that Ms. Baker didn't know the suit existed until long after the default was entered. (Failure to obtain service could be a valid basis on which to open up a judgment in Illinois even if §2-1401 grounds are not present. No court can act without acquiring jurisdiction over the defendant; a court obtains jurisdiction over a defendant in a civil case when the defendant is properly served.)

I don't know how Baker's suit fared, but the fees run up by her new attorney were not just for the defense of the painter's suit. (In fact, unless that judgment were opened up, there was nothing to defend in that case at all.) And the TV story suggests that the attorney had negotiated a broader representation agreement with Ms. Baker, signing on to represent her as necessary as a "vice president of operations." So the allegedly unpaid $69,000 fee may well have been reasonable.

But there's still a lesson here for would-be litigants: Beware of mission creep. You think you've hired a lawyer to represent you in a $15,000 collection case -- but, if you ask her to advise you on other matters, you will be (and should be) charged for these additional services. Don't hire an attorney without a clear view of what you want him to do. Do you want the lawyer to negotiate the best possible settlement on your behalf -- or do you want her to fight to the last ditch? One option is far more expensive than the other if you're paying an hourly rate.

People watch Judge Judy and Judge Mathis and other courtroom shows and get grand ideas about how quick, cheap and efficient the justice system is. When a lawyer tries to tell you that things don't work in real life like they do on television, please listen.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Recovering lawyer who makes art from Lego back in the news

I was stuck at the car dealer, in the Service Department waiting room, waiting for the verdict on the family van. The waiting room at this dealer is bigger than most, and less dingy. But the big room was still dominated by an equally big TV, turned on at full volume, presumably in an attempt to drown out the incessant intercom announcements. If that was the intent, it did not succeed. The sonic barrage made it difficult to focus on the reading I'd brought with me to while away the time.

The TV was tuned to a newscast. These days, in Chicago, there's almost always news on some channel. In a waiting room, one might get Ellen or Maury or Jeopardy or Judge Mathis. But the news will follow immediately.

Anyway, at the end of this newscast, there was a little piece on an ex-lawyer who is opening a show in London this weekend, showcasing the art he creates from Lego. I couldn't find the TV station piece on the station website, but the Chicago Tribune had an AP video up about the artist.

Involuntarily listening to the TV broadcast, I realized that I'd written about this lawyer-turned-artist, Nathan Sawaya, back in 2008. Quoting from an article by Christine Y. Chen on, I had written,
Sawaya graduated from NYU Law School in 1989. He became "a Wall Street attorney, earning a comfortable six-figure salary—and working in a high-stress environment." Seeking a way to unwind, Sawaya began working on art projects in his spare time, working in clay at first, "then moving into more whimsical media, like candy."

And then he moved into Lego.

Sawaya won a 2004 Lego-sponsored competition to find the best builder in the U.S. He quit his day job -- and started working for $13 an hour creating sculptures for a Lego theme park in San Diego.
Things progressed swimmingly from there. Chen's 2008 article said that, though Sawaya was working longer hours than he had on Wall Street, he had more than replaced his income as a lawyer. And now Sawaya's staging big shows in prestigious museums.

In short, Sawaya has become a real-life Lego Master Builder. As opposed to these Master Builders from The Lego Movie.

Still, with all the success he's enjoyed, I wonder, if one were to ask Sawaya how things are going, whether he might answer, "Everything is awesome."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

St. Tars to host 5th Annual Recycling Day and Green Expo September 27

St. Tarcissus Catholic Parish, 6020 W. Ardmore, will hold its 5th Annual Recycling Day and Green Expo on Saturday, September 27, from 9:00 to 3:00.

Computers, monitors, televisions, telephones, radios, DVD players and metals (aluminum cans, brass, copper) will be accepted for recycling in the parking lot behind the church, on the 5800 block of North Moody. Paper shredding will also be available (but only from 9:00 to noon). Walgreens will have people on hand to collect unused prescriptions (flushing expired prescription medications is not the best plan; that puts traces of medicine in the water supply) and to offer flu shots. Working Bikes will be accepting donations of old bicycles, bike parts, crutches, sewing machines, and wheelchairs for repair and distribution to the underprivileged, locally and globally.

The Green Expo will be in the St. Tars School Auditorium, 6040 W. Ardmore. There will be a free book swap (leave a book, take a book), games and activities for children, vendors offering Green and Fair Trade products, Green household cleaning tips, and backyard composting demonstrations. There will also be raffles for various items, including a rain barrel.

Monday, August 11, 2014

It will take time (and terabytes) to rebuild this relationship

Today started as Day 11 of our Internet outage at home. I don't want to name and shame the Internet provider, so I'll just call it by its initials, AT&T.

Readers would presumably be bored with the specifics of my problems. I'll even concede that the poor person employed by the Illinois Commerce Commission to read consumer complaints may not have been entirely riveted by the screed I submitted last Thursday. But, for reasons that will become apparent, I must at least point out that, in the course of allegedly repairing my Internet outage, AT&T disconnected my home phone besides as of Monday, August 4. This was at least our second home phone outage in the past couple of weeks; we'd had an unexplained five-day outage that had only just ended (after our repeated pleas for assistance) on July 28. These phone outages were mentioned in the ICC complaint.

However exciting, or unexciting, my ICC complaint was, it at least seemed to have a salutary effect on the aforementioned telephone monopoly: On Friday I received an earnest phone message from a gentleman in the "Office of the President of AT&T," and if that doesn't sound as official as all get-out I don't know what does.

Interestingly, Friday was also the day that, according to the AT&T U-verse computers, our Internet "upgrade" was to take place. Never mind that, for roughly two blessed hours on Wednesday evening, our Internet was working. Our outgoing phone line was open. Only incoming phone calls were blocked. My foolish mistake was in telling AT&T about this one little flaw. AT&T responded to our request to take care of this minor, remaining issue by scuttling our brand new Internet service and our partial home phone service. My wife and I had just about finished installing the new wireless password on our phones and iPads and other household geegaws when the lights on our brand new U-verse router stopped flashing a uniform, cheery green. From cheery green, the "service" light had gone cherry red. And the phone's dial tone was gone, too.

But that did not set us off. No, we were more or less rational about having the 21st Century snatched away from us -- again -- at least until the AT&T "service" representative told us (our recollections notwithstanding) that our new service had not been installed, but was scheduled to be installed on Friday, August 8. Things got a little heated. But at least the "service" representative did not ask, "Who are you going to believe -- my computer screen, or your lying eyes?"

And, in fairness, a man did show up on Friday afternoon. He worked at a box a couple of blocks away, then came to our house, heading out to the pole in the backyard for awhile, before coming back to the house to tell us that the paperwork was all wrong and would have to be reentered. Meanwhile, my wife and I could return to our unscheduled nostalgia trip to a time before the Internet. And house phones. I had to resist the urge to stop by the general store for some kerosene on Saturday morning.

This morning, when I got into the office (located in the Loop and the 21st Century) I checked the AT&T website to see the status of my "repair appointment." I thought I'd been angry before, when the website said installation was scheduled for a day and a half after it had been up and running, only to have it snatched away from us. But now, when I looked at the screen, and it told me my order was "complete," I'm afraid I may have lost it.

I'm also afraid the attorney in the next suite over is going to look at me with a bit of a raised eyebrow for some time to come.

My wife called AT&T again, while I waited vainly for the earnest young man in the "Office of the AT&T President" to call me back. The person with whom she spoke on this occasion noted the pending ICC complaint and promised that a "senior technician" would be dispatched, a plenipotentiary with full authorization to do whatever it took to put us back online.

And, would you believe it? This time, it worked.

Even the home phone works.

And when the home phone started working again I discovered I had seven voice mails waiting. One was from a credit card company, trying to sell something. The other six were from AT&T. None of the callers seemed to appreciate that they were calling a number they knew, or should have known, not to be in service. This does not inspire confidence.

Nevertheless, I am back. Tentatively. Fearfully. Checking the lights on the broadband modem in between key strokes.

I am hopeful, but I am wary.

I can't embrace the Internet again at home as I had before, not right away. It'll take time. And uninterrupted service. Uninterrupted service for some time. A long time.

I'll try and make this relationship work again. But some scars heal slowly....

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Congratulations to Big Frank Thomas on his enshrinement in Baseball's Hall of Fame

When I was a boy, baseball cards were sold at Waxman's Drug Store at 95th & Hoyne. That's where I got mine. I had a pretty good collection, too, before my mother threw them all out. (Your mother did it, too; don't try and con me.)

In those days, baseball cards came with thin, brittle sheets of awful bubble gum. I never could blow a bubble. But I chewed the gum anyway.

In my life, I have bought very few baseball cards that came without bubble gum.

The one you see above is one of them.

I took it from the vault today to share, in honor of the enshrinement, this weekend, of Frank Thomas in Baseball's Hall of Fame.

When our kids were young, my wife would buy the boys baseball cards as stocking stuffers. I'd get some, too.

Here's one of these.

It's ironic that Big Frank is blowing a bubble in this baseball card photo. By the mid-90s, I think they'd stopped selling baseball cards with bubble gum. I don't remember cards with gum being available anywhere.

Big Frank was always big. He was big in Birmingham; he was big with the White Sox. In 1990, the White Sox acquired Sammy Sosa, a skinny kid from the Texas Rangers. I seem to recall him being called Sammy So-so at the time. He got lots bigger, though, when he went to the Chicago Cubs. He credited "Flintstones Vitamins" for his new muscle mass, as I recall. The sportswriters -- the same ones who will keep Sosa out of the Hall of Fame -- winked at each other and nodded and laughed and ballyhooed the home run duel between Sosa and Mark McGwire, saying nothing about PEDs. Then.

They've said a lot since. And whether or not you think Sosa, McGwire, Barry Bonds and all the rest also deserve to be in Cooperstown, the sportswriters may have said something useful by putting Big Frank in ahead of all of these. Big Frank was great and clean. It is fitting and proper that he gets in first.

Assembly line collection firm faces its own legal troubles

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sued a Georgia law firm, Frederick J. Hanna & Associates, P.C., and three of its principal partners, charging that the firm operates "a debt collection lawsuit mill that uses illegal tactics to intimidate consumers into paying debts they may not owe." (For a complete copy of the CFPB's Complaint, click here.)

Debra Cassens Weiss posted about the suit on July 15 on ABA Journal Law News Now. According to Weiss, the Hanna firm "filed more than 350,000 debt-collection suits from 2009 through 2013" in Georgia alone (the firm also boasts offices in the St. Louis and Ft. Lauderdale areas). Weiss writes that the suit charges that one lawyer in the firm "signed an average of about 1,300 collection suits a week."

Now, let's assume that non-lawyers prepare the suit papers. Indeed, the government's suit (which says the Hanna & Associates operates more like a factory than a law firm) alleges "non-attorney support staff produce the lawsuits and place them into mail buckets, which are then delivered to attorneys essentially waiting at the end of an assembly line. The Firm’s attorneys are expected to spend less than a minute reviewing and approving each suit."

Let's do the math.

There are 60 minutes in an hour. There are, allegedly, eight hours in the typical business day. (I'll pause here until you stop snickering.) 60 x 8 = 480.

There are, again allegedly, five business days in the week. 480 x 5 = 2,400.

Clearly, the government's charges are exaggerated. The man or woman who signed 1,300 suits in a week could have lavished a good 90 seconds on each case and still found time, occasionally, to go to the bathroom or scarf down a sandwich.

And, remember, these are debt collection suits -- not antitrust pleadings. After all, how long does it take to say 'the deadbeat defendant owes my already megarich corporate masters even more money'?

Except... while some of the firm's clients are giant credit card issuers seeking to collect from their own customers, the firm also represents zombie debt buyers -- "companies," as the Washington Post Wonkblog explained, "that purchase old accounts for collection -- such as Portfolio Recovery Associates and Midland Funding."

Here's the deal: John Q. Public buys a widget from the store, charging the $100 purchase price on his Megabank MultiCharge (note that MultiCharge is not a real card issuer -- I can't afford to get sued). The store gets paid a discounted amount -- $97 or $98 from Megabank -- but the store is happy because it has most of its money up front and doesn't have to worry about collection.

If John Q. pays his MultiCharge bill in full on or before the due date, Megabank makes only $2 or $3 on the transaction. Unless, of course, it gets an annual fee or a membership fee (some cards command these). But MegaBank really makes out when John Q. Public can't quite pay the entire balance when the MultiCharge bill comes due. Depending on the card, John Q. may be accumulating annual interest charges of 10, 12, 15 or even 24, 25 or 29%. Considering that, these days, MegaBank pays virtually nothing to borrow money (if, for example, it had to borrow money to pay the store in the first place), the bank's profit margin gets pretty darn plump pretty darn fast.

But, now and again, a MultiCharge customer will fall behind in his or her payments. These losses can be readily absorbed by the obscene profits made from other Megabank customers, but discipline in the ranks must be maintained. The offending customer must be dunned.

If those efforts are not successful, for some reason -- perhaps the credit card customer, taking a page from the corporate giants, decided to decamp in the middle of the night to another venue in order to capitalize on tax advantages -- the charge (still accruing interest the whole while) may be "written off."

But that does not mean that Megabank has given up on collecting. No, it packages its uncollectable accounts and sells them to a zombie debt buyer for pennies on the dollar. The zombie can sue for the entire amount of the indebtedness, still piling up interest according to the original cardholder agreement; it need not hit on very many of these long-shots to make a huge profit on its investment. But the zombie's pleadings should be a little more complex: It addition to allegations of fact showing the validity of the original debt, the complaint needs to document how the zombie came to possess the debt. This documentation might be easy enough if the zombie is the first purchaser of the debt from the credit card issuer, but zombies sell downstream, too.

And the debts written off and sold by the card issuers are not just the ones where the cardholders moved in the middle of the night and left no forwarding address. Some debts were discharged in bankruptcy, others may have been run up on cards fraudulently issued (it's not always a Russian or Bulgarian syndicate that gets a phony credit account started, sometimes it's a spouse who never tells his or her partner about the card issued in both spouses' names).

And then there's the problem of mistaken -- as opposed to stolen -- identity. Computers are wonderful devices, but the accuracy of the information stored within varies according to the humans who enter that information. Mistakes can be made. There may not be too many persons named Xxzyz in any given town (and probably not any, but let's pretend). So the odds that the Stanley J. Xxzyz named by the zombie in its complaint being the one and only Stanley J. Xxzyz in the town phone book are probably pretty good. But it ought to take a little more time to evaluate whether the right defendant has been named if the defendant is named Smith or Jones, right?

I don't know what the rule might be in Georgia, but in Illinois a lawyer's obligations with respect to pleadings is spelled out by Supreme Court Rule 137. An attorney must not only sign every new complaint, but the attorney's signature is meant to be "a certificate by him that he has read the pleading...; that to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good-faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and that it is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation."

In other words, an Illinois attorney is expected to vouch for the legitimacy of every complaint he or she files -- not that it's a dead-bang winner, but that it states, in good faith, a legitimate dispute. Where the complaint is prepared by staff and the attorney sees it for the first time in a pile of pleadings to be signed, whether he or she spends less than a minute on the 'review' or spends 90 seconds or even two full minutes, it seems unlikely that, in any but the simplest and most straightforward of cases, that anyone could realistically comply with Rule 137. If Georgia's rule is similar (and I'll bet it is) it will be interesting to see whether, regardless of the outcome of the CFPB suit, there are disciplinary consequences for the attorneys who signed these pleadings or those who set up the assembly line system.

The takeaway for the layperson who comes across this post is that one should never, ever assume that suit papers, even though (in your view) clearly erroneous, can be safely ignored. It will not matter to the court that a zombie debt collector has sued the wrong John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. The court will not know the complaint is erroneous -- not unless you appear to say so. If you are a John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, but never had a MegaBank MultiCharge account, but if you are served with a complaint that says you did, and you do not go to court and prevent it, you will be defaulted. You will wind up with a judgment on your record, possibly a garnishment summons on your employer. His name is your name, too, and, if a default judgment is entered against you, his debt is yours as well.

Put it this way: The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble; they're only made of clay -- but, in Illinois, after 30 days, a default judgment is here to stay.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Republicans trying to bail out the Redistricting Amendment?

That's what the Illinois Observer is reporting this morning. Specifically, according to the linked post, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno have asked the Illinois State Board of Elections to reconsider the impossibly tight deadline imposed on Yes for Independent Maps to 'rehabilitate' signatures tested and found wanting on its petitions to place the Illinois Independent Redistricting Amendment on the November ballot.

The Observer piece makes this out to be a normal Republicans vs. Democrats story: As I reported on May 21, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is behind a suit to knock this amendment off the ballot... if it makes it on the ballot in the first place. Today's Observer post notes that the Yes to Independent Maps campaign has raised $2.9 million, principally from Republicans, "such as Ken and Anne Griffin who have donated $350,000 to the effort and who are among GOP gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner’s biggest financial backers."

See? Straight-up partisan politics, right?

As Lee Corso says on college football Saturdays, not so fast, my friend.

It's easy to assume that the Republicans would be in favor of the amendment, since the Democrats that now control that mapping process have drawn such friendly districts for themselves, and such dangerous districts for their Republican friends, that the Republicans can practically qualify for endangered species status in Illinois. But nothing lasts forever, especially in politics. The Republicans will presumably have their day again. Eventually. And when they get it, they don't want to have to deal with fairly drawn districts; they will want a chance to draw three Democratic incumbents into the same new district and see how they like it. Republicans want to pick friendly voters and hamstring their opponents just as badly as Democrats do.

Today's alleged Republican plea to the ISBE comes suspiciously late in the process.

The ISBE is required by law to spot-check 5% of the signatures on mega-petitions like that filed by the redistricting amendment's supporters. In that check fully 54% of the signatures were deemed invalid. Projecting this failure rate across the entire petition would put the amendment well short of the 298,400 valid signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot.

Amendment supporters were given the Herculean task of trying to track down the 13,807 petition signers whose signatures were deemed invalid and secure affidavits from them showing that they did in fact sign the petition -- and they were initially given only until June 5 in which to accomplish this.

A Tribune editorial on June 5 noted that an ISBE hearing officer had agreed to give the Yes people a brief extension, to June 13, in which to marshal their rehabilitation evidence, but the full Board overruled the hearing officer. (The Tribune article also notes -- curiously -- that there was no consensus as to which signatures were invalid -- some Board staffers found only 17% of the signatures wanting, while others were willing to throw out an astonishing 86% of the signatures checked.)

Anyway, Radogno and Durkin's plea apparently comes after this reinstated deadline has passed -- before the Board's seemingly inevitable final ruling against the amendment comes down on June 17, but too late to do any real good. Fodder for a commercial or two, perhaps, but without incurring any serious risk that the voters might get a chance to vote on the amendment.

Photo obtained from this post on Capitol Fax
It's interesting to note that the constitutional amendment that Bruce Rauner openly supports, the term limits amendment, an amendment that would also cut the size of the Illinois Senate, has sailed through the ISBE without difficulty. (That's Mr. Rauner, above, posing with the term limits petitions just before they were sent for filing.)

Political professionals can deal with term limits -- Putin and Medvedev simply traded places, you'll recall. Granted, the last Cutback Amendment, perhaps the all-time blunder of Pat Quinn's career, was disruptive. Not only did it put one-third of the Illinois House out of office, it did more than any other single thing to create our current system in Springfield in which the majority leaders in both houses have such authority. The political class as a whole survived and prospered despite the disruption.

If some individual politicians would also suffer under Rauner's new cutback plan, the entire political class, in both parties, would be shaken to the core by a non-partisan map-drawing process. The Democrats are honest enough to be openly against it; many Republican politicians are merely pretending to be for it.

There may well be some constitutional infirmities in the Yes proposal; election attorney Michael J. Kasper will make a strong case, if he has to. This sentence in the proposed Amendment, for example, seems likely to cause trouble: "For ten years after service as a Commissioner or Special Commissioner [on the Independent Redistricting Commission], a person is ineligible to serve as a Senator, Representative, officer of the Executive Branch, Judge, or Associate Judge of the State or an officer or employee of the State whose appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate."

But the professional politicians don't want to get to the merits of the map-drawing amendment either in a courtroom or on the hustings. They'd like to see it killed before it gets on the ballot. And, today's nominal Republican protest notwithstanding, the professional politicians may soon get their wish.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lots more photos from yesterday's Norwood Park Memorial Day Parade

This post is a continuation of a post that began on page one. If you just came from there, you saw the large group of from Taft High School that marched yesterday.

Well, a lot of the local grammar schools and Scout groups participated as well.

Here's a group from Garvey School.

And there was a large group from Immaculate Conception Parish, including several Scout groups and a contingent of junior high students.

Girl Scout Troop 41640, sponsored by the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park, marched in the parade... did Lutheran Unity School...

... and Cub Pack 3958, sponsored by the Norwood Park Lutheran Church.

Norwood Park School also had a good sized turnout.

Also marching were Cub Scout and Girl Scout units from Edison Park Elementary School.

St. Thecla Parish had a large group participating.

And Boy Scout Troop 943 and Cub Pack 3943 from St. Monica Parish also marched... did Cub Pack 3965 from St. Juliana's.

The Marching Eagles Band from Smyser Elementary School also performed along the parade route.

There are more pictures I could share -- my daughter Brigid will be mad at me for not including any pictures of the marchers from the Norwood Park Dog Association -- and I haven't shown any of the old cars that rumbled by. Some of these old cars were new in my lifetime, and I'm not thrilled by that realization. But I can't leave the parade without showing these two ladies, who marched behind a car bearing placards for the Norwood Park Historical Society.