Swamp Water Jurisprudence


by Judge Dennis Challeen

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream —”
- Shakespeare


In 1997 I was rushed to Gundersen Clinic with a serious staph infection. I was hospitalized for a week, living with severe pain and suffering hallucinations. It took another six weeks to recuperate. The doctors told me that I came close to not surviving. After returning home I had one of those pre-dawn dreams that one often recalls upon awakening. Having had a near death experience, it most likely occupied my mind. I heard a voice that was neither male nor female with whom I was able to communicate. The voice said it was not my time to die. I then asked how long I had to live, and the reply was two more decades, until July 25, 2017. When I awakened I jotted down the date and kept it in the back of my mind. I didn’t take it too seriously, but if true, another 20 more years was fine with me.

As a judge I often heard mental illness cases where the person heard voices such as God, angels, stuffed animals that talked, and extra-terrestrial aliens who implanted radio receivers in their skulls (usually behind one’s ears) that received broadcast voices only the mentally ill person could hear. I decided that I didn’t believe myself to be mentally ill, and the voice was only the result of my hospital deliriums. However, there is a common saying that when a lawyer represents himself he has a fool for a client. I assume that when a judge judges himself, the same rule applies.

The voice, if it turned out to be true, gave me a finite life span that was to end on an exact date 20 years in the future. The odds of that randomly happening would be millions to one. Yet we hear people say, “It was meant to be,” or “They were meant for each other,” or “Que Sera, Sera — whatever will be, will be.” This is what is commonly called the philosophy of fatalism.

Some people sincerely believe that their lives are pre-ordained, fixed in advance, and that human beings are powerless to alter or change their destiny; that our lives are programmed, free will doesn’t exist, and some omniscient being knows for all time the exact succession of every event past, present and future, none of which can be altered by human intervention. It’s a concept that is hard to accept and believe. If I make a mistake and put on two mismatched stockings in the morning, was that meant to be, and for what purpose? What deity would create such a trivial mundane mess? The people I meet each day — are they predestined to cross my path? If I drive my car and make a wrong turn and get into an accident, was that other driver’s life also on autopilot and programmed to meet me at that precise intersection? Worse yet, is everyone in his life and my life meant to be affected by this accident? What about those who work in auto body shops who would fix our vehicles? How about the policeman who investigates the accident and his family who are waiting for him to come home if he works overtime?

Fatalism means all those in my life are intermingled with a world full of other people as fate will have it. If we take fatalism to its logical conclusion, no one commits a willful crime — the criminal is just following the script and I as a judge, by sentencing that person, am only following a pre-ordained script as well. That is difficult for my judicial ego to accept, so I wrote off fatalism and left it to college philosophy and theology students for late night dorm room arguments. I went about living my life and waited for July 25, 2017, to arrive, to see if fate exists.

If you are reading this column, you can conclude that I apparently survived the day of my predicted demise. I awoke that morning considering whether this was the last day of my life. My son jokingly e-mailed me asking if I was still alive. I assured him I felt fine and was going to drive to town, but I was going to practice defensive driving which fatalists will tell us is futile — we cannot alter fate. The day went by uneventfully, no asteroids striking earth, no reckless drivers or stray bullets to dodge.

My conjuring with fatalism proved to be nonsense. I should have considered “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where Bottom the Weaver says, “Past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.”

So there you have it. It took me two decades to realize what old Will Shakespeare knew over 400 years ago.


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