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Judge trumps bureaucrat over workplace surveillance

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A federal judge has succeeded in shaming a federal bureaucrat into backing away from a scheme whereby court employees' Internet use would be monitored in the name of workplace efficiency.

The dispute between Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski and Administrative Office of US Courts Director Leonidas Mecham reached something of a crisis when the judge went public in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed item last week.

The evil proposal is scheduled for consideration Tuesday during a federal judicial conference, but now Mecham is asking the conference chairman to delay it, indicating that he's not prepared to fight for it.

Which is a pity, really. If the issue were contested vigorously, it might open a legal can of worms beneficial to all. As things stand now, it appears that the judges will get the freedom they want quietly and easily without a public showdown, and consequently without a much-needed piggyback opportunity for the rude masses.

Judge spills guts

In his WSJ essay, entitled "Privacy on Trial: Big Brother is watching you, your honor," Kozinski illustrates the indignity of workplace monitoring by observing that the US Bureau of Prisons warns inmates that their "use of institutional telephones constitutes consent to monitoring..."

Well, that's pretty much the same treatment most people receive from their employers (jailers?), and from the myriad commercial entities with which we have to interact ("this call may be monitored or recorded for quality-control and training purposes"). And screw you if you don't like it, Bud.

And now these outrageous practices are to be applied to judges.

"All judiciary employees -- including judges and their personal staff -- must waive all privacy in communications made using 'office equipment,' broadly defined to include 'personal computers....library resources, telephones, facsimile machines, photocopiers, office supplies,'" an indignant Kozinski says.

And what about the rest of the working class stiffs who've been treated like prison inmates for decades? They don't have sacred duties, Kozinski reasons. His chief problem here is the indignity of being treated like any other human being.

"For us, confidentiality is inviolable. No one else -- not even a higher court -- has access to internal case communications, drafts or votes," he whinges. "Important principles are at stake here....If we in the judiciary are not vigilant....we will surely lose the moral authority to pass judgment on the misconduct of others."

Ah, the old 'sacred responsibility' dodge. His honor can save it. We know all too well the sleazy process by which law is made. Black-robed handmaidens to the fruits of lobbying, extravagant campaign donations, and pandering to the public's most immediate and self-serving concerns have little to be pious about. The legislature long ago stripped 'moral authority' from the law.

However, we'll allow that the application of justice, if not a sacred responsibility, is indeed a grave responsibility, in the sense that piloting a train-load of toxic chemical waste through a population center is a grave responsibility. Like a chemical spill or a radiation discharge, the misapplication of the law can do severe harm to the innocent, though seen in this context, the practice demands greater, not less, oversight and public scrutiny.

Maybe his honor deserves a video camera in his office and courtroom so he can be observed on the job the way millions of us are, and confronted with its evidence during periodic 'evaluations'. Maybe he ought to be made to piss in a plastic cup twice a year, too, like the rest of those we trust with grave public responsibilities -- and like the increasing lot of those we don't, but who still need to pass the wizz quiz to keep their jobs.

That sounds like Justice of a nicely poetic nature to us. ®

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