Saturday, October 15, 2011

Letter to George Will

You are usually quite perceptive, but you really dropped the ball on your recent Electoral College column.

It is true that there are plans afoot which would subvert the intent of the Founders with respect to the Electoral College, but the Pa. plan is not one of them. The Pa. plan allocates the EC votes on a winner-take-all basis by Congressional District; hence, it is quite in line with the intent of the Founders. Bear in mind that the population of the average Congressional District today is larger than any state was in 1790, except for Virginia.

Please re-think this and comment more intelligently. Thank you.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Amanda Knox Case and the Search for Truth

In the Amanda Knox case in Italy, two things stand out about the recent acquittal. First, the court appointed its own experts to analyze the questionable DNA evidence which was used to convict her on the first go-round. This seems an idea the US should use more. Certainly there are instances in which a court will appoint what is called a "special master", who is someone assigned to look into the facts and report back to the court on his or her findings. But in the context of a criminal trial, it is unheard of as far as I'm aware.

Second, the appeal saw a jury seated and evidence presented, just as in the original trial. In the US the appellate court would never be allowed to examine the facts and reach a different conclusion, as was done in the Knox case. Rather, the appellate court would have to rely on the trial court's factfinding, and limit itself to determining whether any questions of law were wrongly decided in the lower court.

It seems that in certain situations, where there is genuine doubt about the fact-finding in the lower court, that an appellate court *should* be free to conduct a full-scale re-examination of the facts, in order to reach a just result.

Probably many Americans are bashing the Italian justice system about now, but let's remember that in the end they got it right and achieved justice. Given the sorry performance of US courts in recent death penalty cases, we might learn something from the Italians.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Assume vs. presume

I always have to stop and think about which of these is the best word to use in a particular context. While the respective meanings of these words do overlap somewhat, there is, I think, still an important distinction to recognize.

The meaning of "assume" can best be kept in mind with the phrase, "assuming for the sake of argument." We make an assumption, and proceed from there with what flows from that assumption. When studying the proof of math theorems years ago I would often encounter the phrase, "It is intuitively obvious that" such-and-such is true. What the writer is saying here is that he is not going to be bothered with proving something that seems evident, but rather he is going to assume it is true and then go on from there. The rest of the proof depends on the truth of that assumption.

"Presume" is a little harder to nail down. One thinks of the "presumption of innocence" in a criminal trial. This doesn't mean we think the defendant is actually innocent, but it means we presume he is until it is shown otherwise. My hunch is that people don't use "presume" as often as they should, and the reasons are understandable. It sounds a bit pretentious, and the related adjective, "presumptuous", has quite a negative connotation attached to it.

The inimitable Bill Bryson comments: "Assume, in the sense of 'to suppose', normally means to put forth a realistic hypothesis, something that can be taken as probable...Presume has more of an air of sticking one's neck out, of making an assertion that may be arguable or wrong."