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Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: Bushmaster:Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper by Dan Eatherley

I'm terribly glad I was not a sibling nor especially a parent to someone like Ray who would bring home rattlesnakes and other little creatures until he had a veritable reptile house in his room. Did they ever escape. Yes. But he knew how to get the back. Eventually he made such a name for himself he was given charge of the new Bronx Zoo around the turn of the 20th century.

The attempt to keep a bushmaster in captivity for any length of time is an interesting story by itself. (BTW, it was not uncommon for venomous reptiles to be shipped to him from all over the world, not a box I would like to open inadvertently, and sometimes they did indeed escape in the terminals.) The common method of capturing venomous reptiles was to pin them with a forked stick behind the head or noosing them with a strong wire. Bushmasters are extremely fragile and this technique would damage their spines and neck. They then refused (or couldn't) eat and would wither away in captivity in spite of forced feedings. Their normal habitat in Trinidad was also being overrun and they were being decimated by the mongoose which had been introduced to the island in an attempt to control the rat population. Once the technique for capturing them was changed, the bushmaster was successful in captivity and they have since even been able to breed them.

Ditmars was instrumental in promoting and developing the use of antivenin (antivenom is also correct) here and in other countries. He recognized the importance of having treatment available for his workers in the Reptile House where "accidents" were a job hazard. The Bushmaster is no slouch when it comes to venom. Eatherley visited Dean Ripa who operates a serpentarium and has successfully bred bushmasters. He has been bitten several times, likening the experience to "being set on fire, stabbed with a dagger, and then beaten with a sharp, hard stick. You can't move after a few minutes and don't want to either." It took 15 vials of antivenin to "put him right." (Basically, he had "received enough venom to drop a cow.") Eatherley's trip to Trinidad in search of a bushmaster is but one highlight of many.

Some great lines, too. You'll learn new words like "hemepenes" (they don't call it the King Cobra for nothing.) Very informative and interesting book.

I also highly recommend Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review: Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

Another excellent Connelly featuring Mickey Haller, Bosch's half-brother, fifth in the series. 

Haller is contacted by a man accused of killing a woman. Turns out he had been recommended by a former client of Haller's, whom he assumed had gone to Hawaii to flee her life as a prostitute. Then things get complicated as Haller learns of connections between a DEA agent, the DA's investigator, and an incarcerated gang leader who wants out.

The best part, in my mind, was the courtroom scene. No point in going on. Fun read.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reflections on Impeachment

In an interview with Axios, John Dowd, the President's erstwhile lawyer, said "The "President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case." 1 

That's an interesting proposition for it reveals a couple of things: 1. his lawyers believe Trump has obstructed justice (the grounds for impeachment of both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon), and 2. they are asserting that the President by virtue of his office is above the law, an assertion that would seem to be applicable more to a dictator than a democratically elected official.

As a review, the impeachment and trial process, emulated by most states for state officials, is that articles of impeachment are first brought to the House Judiciary Committee where it takes but a simple majority to bring them to the full House. The House also needs but a simple majority (50% +1) to vote to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate where the official, be it president, vice-president, any federal official, stands trial. Here the standard for removal is high: a two-thirds majority of elected Senators must vote to convict in order for removal to take place. (Andrew Johnson's conviction failed by one vote.) Conviction on just one of the articles by a two-thirds majority results in removal.

Gerald Ford (perhaps ironically the only person ever to serve as both president and vice-president without having been elected to either office), during his campaign for the impeachment of Justice William O'Douglas, said "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office." 2 

As it happens, I have been doing some research regarding impeachment for a presentation and have been intrigued by past uses of impeachment and the rationale therefore. Historically, of course, the typical way to remove an unpopular official (at least in the eyes of the perpetrator) was assassination, and certainly we've seen far more of that in the United States than impeachment, beginning with Alexander Hamilton's murder by Aaron Burr (although some might argue a duel is hardly an assassination.) Burr was later charged with treason by Thomas Jefferson for entirely different reasons. Note that both assassination and impeachment are political in nature.

Charles I was indicted and convicted by a quasi-Parliament in 1649. He lost his head (literally.) He argued like Trump who surely wishes he were King, that " "no earthly power can justly call me (who is your King) in question as a delinquent … no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King." James Madison, author of most of the Constitution, and the delegates specifically included the President in Article II, Section 4, to avoid any ambiguity. Unfortunately, that's where the clarity ended, for the phrase "high crimes, and misdemeanors" has bedeviled everyone since.   George Mason favored impeachment for "maladministration" (incompetence). James Madison argued that impeachment should only be for criminal behavior, arguing that a maladministration standard would effectively mean that the President would serve at the pleasure of the Senate. Others have suggested that using the criminal behavior standard could result in the same as Congress could criminalize all sorts of things. So they compromised and settled on the phrase as it exists. (Treason and bribery are pretty straight forward although Trump is pushing the limits of both, especially if we learn his violation of the emoluments clause could be considered a form of bribery.)

In 1797, William Blount, Senator from Tennessee was charged by the House with conspiring to aid Britain in acquiring territory. The Senate decided the House could not impeach a Senator so they (the Senate) kicked him out themselves. Judge John Pickering was the first to be successfully impeached, convicted, and removed from office. That was for drunkenness and "unlawful rulings." (One has to wonder how standards have changed when a sitting president can make lewd remarks and be practically immune from criticism.) Samuel Chase, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court was impeached, at the behest of the Democrat-Republican party, headed by Thomas Jefferson, for political bias and arbitrary rulings and promoting a partisan political agenda on the bench, charges of which he was clearly guilty. Fortunately, he was acquited, helping to assure an independent judiciary. In another irony, the trial in the Senate was presided over by Aaron Burr as vice-president.

There has been only one impeachment or an elected president. (Andrew Johnson, after all, became president via assassination and Nixon, while he surely would have been impeached and convicted, resigned before that could happen): that of Bill Clinton. It's generally agreed that a sitting president is immune from criminal prosecution (not civil it should be noted unless it's a result of his official duties) 3  To quote Justice Story , “‘The president cannot, therefore, be liable to arrest, imprisonment, or detention, while he is in the discharge of the duties of his office, and, for this purpose, his person must be deemed, in civil cases at least, to possess an official inviolability." 5 In the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote about impeachment that the president "

The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the King of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable: There is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable, no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.. 6

Impeachment, ultimately, is a political remedy for official misbehavior, probably not as broad as Ford wished, but much broader than requiring criminal acts. That's something Trump fails to understand. He could be impeached, for example, for running off to the golf course in the midst of a crisis. Thomas Jefferson almost was impeached (an inquiry into his actions had begun) when, as governor of Virginia, he failed miserably in warning citizens of the British attacks. 7 

Given that the impeachment requires that two-thirds of the Senate vote to convict, a very high bar, indeed it means almost by definition that it be bi-partisan. It's also final. There is no appeal. Once convicted the official is out. Period. He could then be indicted for criminal acts should that be desired. Nixon avoided all of that thanks to Ford's pardon. Whether Pence would be equally kind might depend on the nature of the investigations outcomes.

This is just scratching the surface, but Trump and his lawyers would be well-advised to begin reading some history and to start thinking about their options


1. "Trump Lawyer Claims the "President Cannot Obstruct Justice"," Axios, n.d.

2. Gerald Ford, Remarks in the U.S. House of Representatives in an effort to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (15 April 1970), (Congressional Record, vol. 116, 11913, 1970), accessed April 15, 1970, 

3. "When Five Supreme Court Justices Said a President Can Be Indicted," Just Security, last modified January 2, 2018,

4. Amar, Akhil Reed (1999) "On Impeaching Presidents," Hofstra Law Review: Vol. 28 : Iss. 2 , Article 1.
Available at:

Akhil has an illuminating footnote examining the differences between civil and criminal prosecution and why the impact on a sitting president is different. (p. 294)

5. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1563, pp. 418-419 (1833) See also Breyer's concurrence in  Clinton v. Jones (95-1853), 520 U.S. 681 (1997)

6. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay (2007). “The Federalist Papers”, p.524, Filiquarian Publishing, LLC. 

7. “To Thomas Jefferson from John Beckley, enclosing a Resolution of the House of Delegates, 12 June 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 1, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 6, 21 May 1781–1 March 1784, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, pp. 88–90.]

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Review: Den of Thieves by James Stewart

Part of the disgust with Washington and big business stems from the slew of mergers and acquisitions that began during the seventies and eighties and which resulted in many people losing their jobs as the larger entities pulled cash out of the acquisitions, cut jobs, and moved much of the business overseas for cheaper labor costs. In part, what drove the acquisitions mania was the tax code that taxed dividends and profits from a business or stocks and made interest costs fully deductible. It paid therefore to borrow any amount to purchase a company driving the stock price up and then reselling the same company to someone else. The brokers in the middle as well as the managers of those companies became insanely rich from the shell game.

One surprising tidbit that surprised me was how Milliken and others manipulated the press to achieve movement in stock prices and to get what they wanted. By carefully planting stories they could build momentum for mergers and speculation that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The stock price would move in whatever direction they wanted.

It was shameful how Ivan Boesky was hailed by business magazines and university departments as some kind of business genius. His speeches were lauded and yet he achieved what he did purely by cheating.

It's instructive given today's PR strategies by the White House to see how Wall Street and the business community responded to SEC investigations and indictments. Once the information about Boesky's crimes and his indictment was released, the attacks on the SEC began. They discovered that the SEC had permitted Boesky to sell $400,000,000 of his position for a couple of reasons: the SEC wanted to make sure he would have money to pay the $100,000,000 fine he had agreed to in his plea, and they were worried that if news got out prematurely the market would tank and many investors would get hurt. As it was, his investors made a lot of money and the fine was paid. But that knowledge was used against the SEC by the business media (and others who had been guilty of the same insider trading) as a way to focus attention away from themselves and to make the SEC look bad, paving the way for future emasculation of the agency, already underfunded. The charge was that the SEC was letting Boesky get away with millions, an untruth. 

Boesky today lives in California and as a result of his 1991 divorce settlement, his wife (!) paid him $23 million and $180,000 per years. Not too shabby.

Millkin and others involved made literally billions, some served prison terms, almost all came out of it quite comfortably. My own feeling is the deck is stacked against the average investor and that the whole idea of leveraged buyouts hurts everyone except those who orchestrate the deals and collect the fees. Then again, my pension relies on a healthy and growing stock market, so perhaps my complaints should be muted. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

God in the Public Schools?

I am continually amused by the contention that if only we had God back in the schools all our societal problems would be solved. Aside from the suggestion that God is the ultimate wimp unable to do what S/he wants, they never address the issue of just whose God they want. The Mormon God? The vindictive God of the Old Testament? The forgiving God of the New Testament? Or, perhaps the vicious God of the IRA promoting multiple bombings? Or yet the God of the lynchers anxious to do His will by killing as many blacks as possible? And we haven't even begun to discuss which of the thousands of other Gods from the more than 4,000 religions around the world. So who is this God so lacking in fortitude? 

I'm much more worried that God has never left the schools; He just doesn't give a shit. If people want to ignore the poor despite the concern Jesus had for them, or run around killing each other, or continue to accumulate stuff at the expense of those starving in other countries, then maybe He's washed his hands and could care less. Clearly all the "thoughts and prayers" have been totally ignored and are just a waste of time, or worse, a way to avoid taking responsibility.

Even the suggestion that we need to "put God back in the schools" implies such little faith in God's will and that He has so little agency in world events. Not to mention how little regard is shown for those of faith who carry God with them always and even attend school. The clear implication is, "By God, you're going to believe in my God and we're going to force you to believe in Him or else. After all, that's why you go to school, right? Parents don't have a role; they can't be bothered with religious instruction at home. We want to foist that off on someone else."