Justice for the select few, numbers for the multitudes

Monday Book Reviews

September 13, 1993|By Myron Becken

WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR SOME. By David Kairys. The New Press. 246 pages. $12.95 (paperback). DAVID Kairys is very upset, and after you read his book you will be, too, if you care about the rights we Americans have come to take for granted.

A Baltimore-bred professor of law at Temple University who specializes in civil rights, Mr. Kairys keeps a closer tab on recent Supreme Court decisions than do the press or the public. Occasionally a particularly outrageous decision is rendered -- such as the one earlier this year that new proof of innocence need not be considered by an appeals court after a death sentence. But mostly we either don't know what the court is doing, or we quickly forget in our struggle to keep up with our problems and diversions.

For years an endless conservative tirade and rallying cry has been that the liberals are running amok with the Constitution, with a few well-thumbed cases cited or misinterpreted. Mr. Kairys shows that the conservatives' own champions have pretty bloody hands themselves and that the extent of their quiet, unheralded work is much greater.

Almost article by article, he goes through the Bill of Rights, telling how it has been eroded by a Supreme Court that feels free to overlook logic, precedent, fairness or justice to reach its ends.

Pick a right that you assume is basic -- say, voting. Do you think you have a right to vote for whomever you want? Not any more. In Burdick vs. Takushi last year, the court ruled that a state can deny you a write-in option and make voters choose between the two major party candidates.

Or take the case of Adolf Lyons, who was nearly killed by Los Angeles police after they stopped him for driving with a burned-out taillight and then put him into a choke hold after he offered no resistance.

When he tried to sue to stop police from using such tactics, the Supreme Court refused to let him, saying he couldn't prove the police would ever try to choke him again.

Did this warped logic contribute to the L.A. police behavior in the Rodney King case?

Mr. Kairys examines the justices who render the decisions, too. Antonin Scalia, for instance. After noting some of the comments in Justice Scalia's opinions about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's work ("cannot be taken seriously," "more than one should have to bear"), Mr. Kairys writes:

"He seems to be engaged in some sort of judicial therapy, in which he gets out often vicious personal feelings; laments the fate of conservatives of the past, such as the effect of Justice Taney's Dred Scott decision on his reputation (which seems thoroughly deserved); stigmatizes segments of the population who do not meet his standards of personal virtue; and regularly ridicules those who disagree with his extreme positions." (Justice O'Connor, it should be recalled, is not one of those -- gasp! -- liberals, but a conservative jurist herself.)

Mr. Kairys' greatest scorn is reserved for Chief Justice William Rehnquist (once referred to by Richard Nixon, the man who appointed him to the court, as "that clown Renchburg"), who merrily does in spades what he criticizes others for doing: picking precedents to fit his conclusion, misreading precedents, using one form of logic for one case and another for the next.

The result of all these Supreme Court actions is a greatly revised Constitution under which it is very hard for government to do wrong and under which rights are reserved for a select few -- all under the cover of giving power back to the people.


ZERO TO LAZY EIGHT. By Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, Joseph Maquire. Simon & Schuster, 228 pages, $21.

The authors say the book is not a mathematics textbook. In a technical sense they are right. The cover indicates the book deals with various expressions involving numbers ("one-horse town," "go the whole nine yards"). To some extent it does. The preface says, "This is a book about people and the part numbers play in how they look at and talk about the universe." That's also partially true.

What the book actually is is a potpourri of fascinating information about almost anything having to do with numbers. It includes digressions on word origins, history, astrology, music, clothing sizes and the statues at major street intersections in Washington, D.C.

Each number from zero to 13 rates its own up-close-and-personal chapter, with a final chapter on lazy eight, the infinity symbol, which looks like the number 8 in repose. But sometimes the linkage between the number and the chapter's contents seems to be tenuous, with the number more an excuse than a reason for a particular digression.

Take, at random, the chapter on the number 10. It goes into such topics as base 10, why there are 360 degrees in a circle, timekeeping, how people used to count on their fingers up to 9,000 (and also multiplied on their fingers), slide rules and police department 10 codes, with references to Tom Lehrer, Mickey Mouse, Umberto Eco and Charles Babbage, among others.

The book is written in a breezy style and contains its share of funny stories, but one can't zip through it. When the authors start talking about number theory, graph theory, set theory and probability, the going gets slow. You wouldn't want to miss anything about the chances of making your point when shooting dice.

One measure of how much is included in the book is that the index runs to 13 pages of double-columned small print. Speaking of 13, did you know there is more chance of the 13th of a month falling on a Friday than on any other day? Sorry, triskaidekaphobics.

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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