What The Tea Party Gets Right, Part I

Yesterday, even though I should have known better, I called a local radio show, The Ronn Owens Program, on KGO. His guest was a frequent contributor and lawyer named Len Tillem, who at times has had his own radio call-in program.

Ronn (at least in the past) has been a voice of sanity in the 9am slot on KGO…the other option is Rush Limbaugh (not an option).  I don’t agree with Ronn on everything, but I certainly agree more with him than with Limbaugh. I even called his show once before (the topic was arts education)…he agreed with me and was cordial.

So, he had Len Tillem on, and I thought I’d run an issue by them, but didn’t have a concrete question. Which was my main mistake. I’d heard nuanced conversations on Ronn’s show before, but when I called in, they weren’t looking for “discussion topics”…they were looking for soundbites and easy situations to riff on.

My “situation” isn’t really a “situation,” because it was resolved months ago. Around July of last year, I got caught in a red-light camera at the intersection at El Camino and Chestnut to the tune of $490 (probably more than double a similar camera costs in other states). I had been making a perfectly legal right-hand turn on red-the camera just decided I hadn’t stopped as long as I should have. Adding insult to injury, I discovered that camera had never been ratified in a city council meeting (causing $1.5 million in fines to be refunded) and said city council had voted-THE PREVIOUS MARCH-to take the camera down. Yet, in July, it was still operational.

But, a ticket for an exorbitant fine under incredibly sketchy circumstances wasn’t the problem. I showed up in person to my arraignment at the Redwood City courthouse (always a good time) remembering that judges can and will reduce fines if you show up in person. After the judge announced the rules (“plead ‘guilty’ or ‘no contest’ and you’ll get the minimum possible fine, plead ‘not guilty’ and lose your case and we’ll throw the book at you”), the games began. And, it was true-he was able to reduce fine after fine. I saw a guy with THREE VIOLATIONS (unsafe speed, texting while driving, carseat violation) walk out with a total tab of $261 (if my $490 had been busted down to $261, I wouldn’t be writing this now). I saw another guy who was being arraigned for exhibitionist driving (over 90 mph) get a $200 reduction. But, there were also several people there with red-light camera tickets, and the maximum-THE VERY MAXIMUM-the judge was able to reduce peoples’ fines was $90 (in addition to traffic school, which of course, also costs money). I guess if I’d been pulled over by a live cop for texting on my phone with an infant in an improperly secured carseat, that would have been better somehow.

So, I got called in front of the judge, who looked calmly at a computer screen, then said, “Well, Mr. Nemeth, do you want to hear some good news?” Well, yeah, sure I did.

“The good news is that this camera was taken down.”

I let myself relax a little bit.

“The bad news is that this doesn’t apply to you. $400 and traffic school!”

I guess he thought he was making a joke. It wasn’t funny. Considering that this judge, like every other judge I’ve seen in person, had a corncob up his ass in regard to decorum in HIS courtroom, I didn’t think this was funny. If he’d just simply said “$400 and traffic school” and asked for my plea, I would have just sighed and given my plea.

Maybe I’m being too touchy here. I’ve been a career musician for going on thirty years, which means bars, dark alleys, and being around people who’ve been to prison and are proud of it. It means snappy comebacks, good-natured insults and ‘the dozens.’ I pride myself on being able to give-and get-infield chatter and good-natured insults.

But, I guess that doesn’t extend to having a traffic court judge come in, jump on citizens about decorum in THEIR court-and then claim exemption from their own rules. It’s this quaintly outmoded concept called “public servants are accountable to the public”…one of the things the Tea Party actually gets right, but more about that later.

So, following the directions on the back of the form I got back from the court, I filed a complaint against the judge, citing “improper demeanor” and (I forget the term because I don’t have the form in front of me) his curious inability to reduce photo red-light violation fines. A couple of weeks later, I got a form letter back saying that my complaint was “under review.” Then, a couple of weeks after that, I got ANOTHER form letter saying that I had received the original letter “in error” and I had to send my complaint to a DIFFERENT address, addressed to a specific judge. I was also advised to send my letter certified mail.

Now, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. It was pretty clear I was getting the runaround. And, to be blunt, I didn’t EXPECT anything to happen. My greatest hope was that, at some point, this particular traffic-court judge was going to have to sacrifice half an hour of his precious time and sit across from ANOTHER judge and explain himself. But, it was pretty clear even THAT was too much to hope for. So, both letters from the Judicial Review Board went in the trash and life went on.

Until yesterday, when I thought that the concept of “what’s the point of filing a complaint against a judge if it’s not going to be taken seriously might be an interesting topic for Ronn’s show, and made the mistake of calling in.

Halfway through the screening process, I had a change of heart. I tried to hang up on his producer. “You know, this is a stupid call. I know what they’re going to say-I’m wasting my time.”

“No, no, no,” the guy answered. It’s funny how you can tell on the phone when someone has facial hair. “You’re asking how to file a complaint against a judge.”

Well, not really. But I was interested to hear what Len and Ron had to say. So, I waited for a moment, and then was live on the air in front of hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of people.Let’s…just say it didn’t go well.

“So, you filed a complaint for improper demeanor against a judge,” Len said. “What’d he do?”

I explained the judge’s joke and they both exploded. “Oh, come ON!” Ronn exploded. “REALLY?” It was pretty clear he didn’t have much sympathy for me.

“If I was that judge, I’d have fined you an extra $100 for being a sore loser,” Len quipped. I opened my mouth to reply-but I’d already been cut off.

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