A Farce, In One Act
[The curtains open on the following scene: a dark laboratory in an undisclosed location. Two scientists, with "GOP Labs" on their white lab coats, are seen tinkering with a massive robot lying on a slab. A high official from the Republican Party enters unexpectedly. The High Official from the Republican Party (let's just call him HORP for convenience's sake) strides into the lab. The scientists (let's call them Dr. Frank and Dr. N. Stein) jump nervously to attention.]
HORP begins by blustering:
"OK, guys, I'm here to see what all our secret funding has paid for. So show me what you've got so far."
The two doctors look at each other sheepishly. Dr. Frank begins timidly, "Well, it's not ready for release yet, but we're definitely making progress!"
"That's right, definite progress!" echoes Dr. N. Stein.
"That's what you've been telling us for months. So fire this thing up and let me see how it works. What do you call it again?"
"The JusticeBot 9000!" both doctors proudly say in unison.
HORP makes his way closer to the slab, and looks down. Loose wires are everywhere, and the robot itself has a mass of electronic innards where its face should be. "Pretty ugly, isn't it?" is HORP's first reaction.
"Well, we work on it with no faceplate, but don't you worry, it'll look like whatever you want it to," says Dr. Frank, indicating one wall of the lab, where a rack of faces is hung. Row after row, layer after layer of elderly white male faces stare blankly back. Dr. N. Stein indicates the end of the bottom row, almost hidden, where a few non-white non-male faces can also be seen -- "See, we've even got minority faceplates, if you want them!"
HORP snorts. It's impossible to tell whether he's happy about this or not. He is about to look away from the faces, and then does a double-take, as he notices a stuffed chicken lying discarded at the bottom of the rack. "What's with the chicken?" he demands.
"That should have been thrown away," responds Dr. Frank, "it's what we started with. You know those machines at the boardwalk where you play tic-tac-toe with a chicken? We got one, stripped it down, and built the JusticeBot 9000 on this platform. You said you wanted a machine that took all the human factor out of the law, so that emotion and empathy would be forever banished from the bench. Since chickens have neither, we began with this very simple machine and built upon it...."
"Of course," Dr. N. Stein adds, "we've come a long way since then. Lots of improvements!"
The three turn back to the lifeless robot on the table. "Well, let's see what it can do," says HORP unenthusiastically. The two scientists go into a flurry of adjustments, until Frank finally (and rather dramatically) throws a large switch on a panel next to the robot.
"ALL RISE!!" the robot screams.
HORP, not expecting this, jumps back. The two scientists reassure him, "that's just what we're using to boot him up. Don't worry, we'll remove it for the final version."
The robot twitches slightly, and emits a soft humming noise. "So, what can it do?" asks HORP. "How far have you gotten?"
The scientists fool with a computer keyboard next to the robot. Frank begins, "well, we started with the specification you gave us, but while we were successful, we found it to be too limited to actually become a federal judge. Here, I'll show you..."
"BALL!" the robot yells. "STRIKE!"
"Oops, sorry, the volume's a bit high, let me turn that down."
"Ball..." the robot says, at a much more reasonable volume. "Strike... ball..." The two scientists beam at each other, as the robot finishes "...ball -- take your base!"
"See -- it's just what you told us to make him do!" N. Stein exclaims. "But, as I say, it's a little limited in this basic configuration."
"So we entered a full legal history in the memory banks. But getting the adjustments right is proving much more difficult than we had expected," says Frank, in a more subdued tone of voice. "See, we started -- of course -- with a Strict Constitutionalizer module. But I have to say, setting it on full power gave us some unexpected results." Frank works the computer keyboard again, and then turns to the robot.
In a much more reasonable and judge-like tone, the robot begins, "All non-whites count as three-fifths of a person. Only property-owning white males may vote. Manifest destiny!"
"Obviously," Dr. N. Stein says, "this isn't acceptible, so we modified the module with an Amendment-o-matic routine to bring it up to date." His fingers fly over his own keyboard as he speaks.
The robot replies, "interning Japanese in times of war is indeed constitutional. Dred Scott was decided correctly."
"This is better, but still not quite there yet, as I'm sure you'll agree," says Frank as he turns away from the robot. But HORP has his poker face on, and it is impossible to read his thoughts.
"So we tried changing the Empathizer settings, raising it just a wee bit from zero, as the spec says it should be." Frank changes a few settings, as HORP gives another inscrutable snort. "But, it's a delicate balance. It's been hard to integrate this setting with the Ethno-tization levels."
Finally, HORP breaks his silence. "Ethno-what?!?"
"Well, we had to add this to allow leeway for judicial flavor. Otherwise, Alito and Scalia wouldn't have made it on to the court."
HORP looks a bit mollified, and says, "Good point."
"But getting the balance right is tricky. See, when the Empathizer and the Ethno-levels are at odds, you get some might strange results. Watch this," Frank says, grasping two large knobs and twisting them back and forth. The robot jerks on the table.
"Have the Castelleneta family whacked," the robot says, in the voice of Fat Tony from The Simpsons. The voice deepens a bit to Godfather levels, and starts mumbling, "I'm gonna make him an offer he won't refuse..."
"Let's turn it towards African-American, that might help," says N. Stein.
"I'll bring the fried chicken and potato salad!" the robot cheerfully belts out.
Frank hastily twists a knob, saying "we just added a Puerto Rican setting, let's see what that does..."
The robot raises an arm and points a finger threateningly, while saying "You got some splainin' to do..." Frank twists the knob back a bit. "I want to live in A-mer-EEE-ka!" the robot sings cheerfully.
Exasperated, HORP says, "look I don't care about that, we can add ethnicity at the last minute, right?" The two scientists look doubtfully at each other, but HORP is on a roll. "We just need it to be the perfect justice. We want it to interpret the law, not make the law, and follow the Constitution faithfully."
"Well, that sounds nice when you write the spec, but here's what we got when we tried that," says N. Stein, cringing a bit while he resets the dials.
"Bzzrt... the Bush v. Gore decision was an abomination of the law! Plessy v. Ferguson was a stain on this country's history! Roe v. Wade is the law of the land!"
"But, see, when we back it off a tiny bit, again, unexpected results are what we get," sighs Frank. He makes a minute adjustment.
"Nullification is a valid power reserved to the states! Secession is allowed for under the Tenth Amendment! The Civil War should never have been fought, the South should have been allowed to leave the Union!"
"And, just when we think we've got the right balance, it just goes haywire," N. Stein gloomily says, making another adjustment.
"States' rights! States' rights! If Oregon wants to legalize euthanasia, the federal government has no right to tell it not to. When one-fourth of the states legalize medical marijuana, the federal government should just back off!"
"See what I mean?" concludes N. Stein, in exasperation.
"Well, gentlemen, I can tell you, I'm not very impressed." HORP says, preparing to leave. Dr. Frank and Dr. N. Stein freeze in terror at his next words. "Your funding is up for renewal, and I have to say this is all pretty disappointing. We gave you a simple task -- make a judge who would have no human emotion and no empathy whatsoever, and would judge cases the way an umpire calls balls and strikes. Instead, you've obviously built some sort of monstrosity, who cannot be relied upon to follow sound Republican doctrine from the bench."
"But that's just the problem!" interjects Dr. Frank, in frustration. "Following the law sounds easy, but the law has changed over the years. The things the Constitution did not address come before judges all the time. Life has changed since 1787! And the law has changed as well."
"And it's not only that," Dr. N. Stein joins in, "it's easy to tell us to 'make it follow Republican doctrine,' but Republican doctrine is just not logical at times. Why do we support states' rights on some issues and not others? Why do we applaud judges making law from the bench when the law is something we agree with? Why do we say we want a smaller government, but then push for laws that force the government into the most private of decisions? It's easy to get up in front of the cameras and say things that contradict each other, but when you've got to write a computer program to follow it, it all breaks down through its inherent contradictions and illogic!"
"What you want from us," continues Frank, in a more calm tone of voice, "is a judge that decides every case the way the Republican Party wants. And that is not 'strict constructionist' and it's not 'calling strikes and balls,' what it is can only be called one thing -- bias. You want the JusticeBot to guarantee an outcome -- prejudging each case by party doctrine. And there's a word for that, too -- prejudice. It's easy to write a spec which demands such prejudging, but it's very hard to build that into a machine."
"Well," says HORP in a dangerously calm voice, "if that's the way you feel about it, I can guarantee we won't be wasting any more money here." He turns to stalk out.
"It's an impossible task!" screams Frank at his retreating back. "If it was so easy to build a machine to call legal strikes and balls then why are there still human umpires in baseball?!? If even that is impossible, then why would you think building an automated judge would be any easier?"
[Fade, one sincerely hopes, to black.]
[Note: I wrote in a more serious vein about the Sotomayor nomination back when it was first announced -- from a deconstruction of the "wise Latina" comment, to why it is an absolute joke for Senator Sessions to talk about racial preferences in front of the same committee which rejected him as a federal judge -- because he espoused racist viewpoints. Since Sotomayor should cruise to confirmation, I decided to get a bit more tongue-in-cheek today. If you want serious commentary, go back and read my previous articles.]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com