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T.S. Eliot said, “April is the cruelest month.” He explained this in terms of flowers bursting through the earth and a whole lot of other metaphorical crap that doesn’t bear analysis unless you’ve already been determined by acclamation to be a great poet. Hell, unless you’re T.S. Eliot, you can’t even get away with “cruelest.” Everybody else has to say, “most cruel.” In California, we appellate types have a government office whose whole purpose is to keep us from using words like “cruelest.” It’s called the Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal. The reporter of decisions is a nice man named Ed Jessen, and he and his minions edit everything written for publication by the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court to make sure we sound official and/or erudite. (Imagine their despair when I was appointed to the bench.) They’ve even compiled a book, The California Style Manual,subtitled, “A Handbook of Legal Style for California Courts and Lawyers,” in a vain effort to teach us to sound like we know what we’re talking about. Obviously, Jessen’s title should be “Chief Sisyphus in Charge of Getting Out of the Way of the Rock on Its Way Back Down.” But they couldn’t get that on the letterhead, and it caused a lot of interoffice squabbling about proper capitalization, so they just went with “Reporter of Decisions.” THEY’RE WATCHING ME One of the things they do is watch our language. That is why no appellate court in California has ever used the word “cruelest,” except in quoting someone else. And, T.S. Eliot having inexplicably moved on to the great beyond without ever having sought a position on the Court of Appeal, we probably never will. They’ve apparently assigned one really smart woman to do nothing but ride herd on me. If you know basketball, you can think of it as a box-and-one defense: The rest of the team guards everyone else and Brenda Cox just follows me around. A few years ago, I had to fight like a drunken bobcat to get the Reporter of Decisions to let me use “lumberjacking” as a noun. I can’t imagine the brouhaha if I’d tried to use “cruelest.” But I digress. At least I think I do. I’m not even sure of that. If “digress” is defined as “to turn aside, especially from the main subject in writing or speaking,” (as the American Heritage Dictionarydefines it), then I have failed to digress because I have failed to establish a main subject. I wandered off course somewhere around the fifth word of the essay, well before I got to my main subject. I have therefore “gressed” before I ever got to my topic. I have “pregressed.” This is something that, judging by the lack of any term for it in my dictionary, has never previously happened. Congratulations on having been here to see history made. Now I have to make sure the word gets into circulation. To that end, the word “pregress” will be in my next six opinions, and when the Reporter of Decisions insists I replace it with an “accepted” verb, I’ll offer them “lumberjack,” which has, after all, been accepted ever since People v. Foranyic(Cal. Ct. App. 1998), when they decided I was more trouble than I was worth and let me have my way. Could someone please drop by Jessen’s San Francisco office and take away any sharp objects he may have? And now, pregression aside, it’s time to actually get to where I tried to go 500 words ago, before I was so rudely interrupted by my own incapacity for linear thought. To wit: April may well be the cruelest month, and this year it is also the month in which I give my award for the dumbest crime of the preceding year. I know most of these “retrospective best” awards are given in late December, but I have a day job, and it’s hard to find the time to squeeze in these really important awards what with all the writs and things. So my award always comes out late. That’s just the way it is. Get over it. This year’s winner was actually committed last August. The crime, that is, not the accused criminal, although he should have been committed shortly thereafter. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A San Mateo man has pleaded not guilty to charges that he tried to collect a $1,500 ransom for the return of the cremated remains of a dog belonging to a Foster City family.” Wow. Dead-dog extortion is pretty hard to top. So our winner is Kenneth So, 23. Technically, I may be a little premature in announcing Mr. So as this year’s winner since I don’t know if he’s changed his plea to guilty yet. But I’m sure this is just a formality — like cashing in the winning lotto ticket — because this is a chance at immortality. Even if they’ve got the wrong man, I’m sure that So will plead out just to assure his place in the history of crime. CREMAIN, CREMAINED, CREMAINING Not to mention his place in the history of words. The Chronicle‘s account of this story says, “The dog’s cremains — as cremated remains are called — haven’t been recovered.” Cremains? Cremated remains are called “cremains”? By whom? Since when? I hope Mr. So doesn’t end up in prison, because I’m pretty sure if Bubba asks you what you’re in for and you indicate you were holding cremains for ransom, you’ll get beat up. My experience with cons is they don’t like being made fun of, and you start throwing around words like “cremains,” you better have a shiv (or Ed Jessen) with you. But now I am digressing. According to the Chron, So lives in San Mateo. This is good, since it marks the return of the award to California after a two-year hajj in Arizona. (The man who stole the mayonnaise out of the hotel refrigerator because he thought it was “community property,” and the lady who assaulted her neighbor with a peanut-butter sandwich.) California, after all, is where the award belongs. If, as I am beginning to believe, Arizona is a cathedral to goofiness, California is still its Lourdes. And what better proof of this than the allegation that Mr. So, after making off with $12,000 in computers and electronic equipment, sent the homeowners a ransom note demanding $1,500 for the ashes of little Sparky. I mean, think about it. You’ve just picked up $12,000 worth of modern technology for no more effort than opening an unattended sliding glass door, unplugging all the loot, and loading it into your trunk. You’re sitting on your arse, sipping a cold one, trying to decide which of the swag to sell and which to plug into your own wall. But instead of dropping to your knees and thanking a merciful God that you can make a living this way, you decide to try to squeeze another $1,500 out of this turnip. So you send a ransom note to the owners, telling them to meet you at the corner of Edgewater and East Hillsdale boulevards in Foster City at 3 p.m. the next day, or they’ll never see little Sparky alive again. Oops. That’s not right. Sparky’s already dead. “Bring the money to Edgewater and East Hillsdale at 3 o’clock tomorrow, or I’ll incinerate your dog.” No, that doesn’t work either. “If you ever want to see Sparky’s urn again . . .” Aw, crap. WHEN CRIME DOESN’T SPELL This should have been a tip-off. Remember the scene in “Take the Money and Run” where the bank robber hands the teller a note and the teller misreads it as “I have a gub,” and then gets into an argument with the robber about whether he has a “gub” or a “gun”? Woody Allen’s Third Rule of Criminal Endeavor: If it won’t write, it ain’t right. If you can’t phrase the ransom note so it sounds like you’ve got something worth buying back, you’re just not cut out for extortion. Consider a career on the appellate bench. Or with the Reporter of Decisions. William W. Bedsworth is an associate justice at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected]. This commentary was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service.

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