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Of Congress, quahogs, and lapses in logic

The first lesson for a law student is how to pound the table and shout when the law is on the other side. This doesn't sway justice one bit, but it convinces the client that the lawyer is doing a great job. Since many congressmen are lawyers, we got a lot of pounding the table and shouting during the impeachment debate from its opponents, who did not succeed in swaying the decision, but might have had a purgative effect on the law profession, I hope.

Pounding the table is not necessarily an exercise of erudition and intellectual gentility. These congressmen offered the thought that impeachment is not worth the time, so Congress should call off the frivolity so the members could get on with the budget, Social Security, probity and morality, and the great expense of teaching our schoolchildren to be decent.

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I've been uneasy about this, as I think pounding the table does not equip anybody as an expert on social niceties. It also occurred to me that logic, presumably a great attribute with the law, was lacking in the great lamentation that impeachment was a partisan abomination and should be bipartisan. If this feeble logic needed implementation, all they had to do was stop pounding the table and vote with the prevailing side.

I was also visibly moved by the prominence enjoyed by the surveys. Every day the surveys were quoted to prove that the American people were in favor of duplicity and deceit. It made me think of Game Warden Steve Powell, who said surveys are conducted by unbiased experts who first need to know which side to be unbiased about. Steve also liked to tell about surveying geese in Merrymeeting Bay to learn the numbers of males and females. Extensive funds were spent to acquire goose statistics, and the unbiased surveyors found that of 20 pairs of Canada geese, 20 were ladies and 20 were ganders. Since geese mate for life, and only pairs were studied, Steve was amused.

Another thing that amused me (and Steve) was the suggestion by the table-pounders that our senators can be amenable to tricky logic, too. This one made me think of Prof. Thomas Means and lawyer Jake Aldred, who joined forces in the quahog matter. A quahog is an inferior clam much esteemed where people don't know too much about clams. This includes New York City, where they make a clam chowder with quahogs and actually find people to eat it. In Maine, where both soft-shell (long-necked) clams and quahogs may be found in the tidal flats, the former are generally considered fit to eat.

Nellie Ellis, for one, used to say the quahog in a chowder has the culinary flavor of a teamster's leather mitten along in late March. Nellie was a good cook and never lifted the cover on a lamb stew after she'd spooned in the dumplings.

Our Maine Legislature is not unlike the Congress and has been known to do illogical things. One session, back in the 1930s, it enacted a law about fishing for quahogs that was instantly unpopular with a substantial number of clamdiggers. It provided that private interests could reserve public flats for the propagation of quahogs, and it would be a criminal offense if anyone trespassed on such reserved areas.

This law, phrased as if by our original Founding Fathers, said that when a responsible person applied for a permit to propagate quahogs, the town officers "shall" issue such a permit. The same way, I assume, that the Senate shall handle an impeachment.

Anyway, Mr. Edwin Rogers applied for a quahog permit, and the town officers refused to give him one. They were merely yielding to the political clout of the clamdiggers and pounded the table to shout, "We have discretionary powers!"

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Professor Means taught Greek and Latin and was also versed in English. He didn't know a quahog from a field of daisies, but he knew "shall" from "may," and was disgruntled that a public servant could be elected in a college community before he could read. He said as much to the town officers without effect. Means was also a logical positivist and did not go jump in the lake as the officers recommended.

SO he called on attorney Jake Aldred and retained him to force the town officers to comply with the quahog law. Jake was intrigued by the challenge, and respected the academic prestige of his client. If Professor Means said so, there was no reason to believe otherwise, even if you were chief justice. Jake drew up the papers.

Now comes an interesting confrontation. Here was a lawyer who knew a quiddet from a quibble, adroit at pounding the table, and a classics professor who could handle the passive periphrastic. Professor Means wrote the plea Jake would read to the judge, and of the three, Professor Means was the only one who understood it.

If our Senate heaves out the impeachment, Liberty may not topple into the bay. But certainly logic will fall off the throne along with grammar and rhetoric. We will never know if "shall" means "may" and "can" means "might," and what Jake charged Professor Means.

The judge, in an astute pang of jurisprudent buck-passing, kicked the thing out of court. He ruled that Jake went for mandamus when he wanted certiorari, something Professor Means could have explained instantly, probably with a quotation from the Iliad. It's too bad; that decision would spare us a lot of table-pounding in Washington.

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