Swamp Water Jurisprudence: When trivial becomes ugly


by Judge Dennis Challeen

Recently U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was assaulted while mowing his yard, by a longtime next-door neighbor who is now being charged with assault. The senator suffered some broken ribs. Apparently, he and the neighbor had a dispute concerning some inconsequential grass clippings surrounding the boundary lines between their properties. Both parties are medical professionals, and the dispute appeared to be over some landscaping, and not political.

In my experience as a judge, when hearing such neighborhood disputes, it’s not a single event that sets these people off, but a culmination of many trivial events that keep festering until the straw that breaks the camel’s back turns an argument into physical confrontation.

History is full of examples of trivial events that grew and exploded beyond control, and often harmed generations that followed.

Civilized politicians shouldn’t make foolish decisions and resort to violence, but they sometimes do. Alexander Hamilton died as a result of a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Hamilton was the former secretary of treasury and Burr was the sitting vice president of the United States under President Thomas Jefferson. The duel took place in an obscure town on the Hudson River in New Jersey, though dueling was outlawed by both New York and New Jersey at that time. The two politicians had a bitter rivalry over many years. Hamilton aimed his pistol at the sky over Burr’s head and apparently thought Burr would do the same, but Burr shot Hamilton, fatally wounding him. Burr’s political career ended and Hamilton’s memory went on to become the face on our $10 dollar bill and there’s now a popular Broadway musical about his life. Hamilton was born illegitimate in the British West Indies and came to America in his teens. If he had survived the duel he may well have become president. Though not a natural-born citizen, he would have qualified as a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution.

This is sometimes called the Hamilton exception; George Washington was similarly qualified as a born British subject.

In 1856 Sen. Charles Summer of Massachusetts was making a speech on the Senate floor fiercely criticizing slaveholders. Two days later Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate with a walking cane and proceeded to beat Sen. Sumner, nearly killing him. This violent act further polarized Congress, “breaking down reasoned discourse,” which ultimately led to the Civil War and 750,000 casualties.

The Civil War produced our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. But he wasn’t always as prudent as we give him credit for. When he was a lawyer in 1842, 20 years before becoming president, he was in a local political fight with the state auditor, James Shield. Lincoln wrote a mocking letter to the editor under a pen name of Rebecca, making fun of his opponent’s politics and his pursuit of women. Shield found out it was Lincoln and demanded a public apology. Lincoln refused and was challenged to a duel. Lincoln accepted and a duel was agreed upon on the Missouri side of the Mississippi where it was not prohibited. Lincoln, being challenged, had the right to choose weapons and he chose a large, long broadsword, giving Lincoln, at 6’ 4” with long arms, a decided advantage over his 5’ 9” opponent. Both men, seeing it was ridiculous, called a truce. Lincoln was embarrassed by the whole episode and didn’t like to discuss it at all. Once during the war he was asked about the duel and he said, “I do not deny it, but if you desire any friendship you will never mention it again.”

In 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Bosnia. This local tragedy should only have merited a footnote in history; however, the assassination set off a rapid chain of events because of treaties that required countries to come to the defense of others. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun. The United States entered the war in 1917 “to make the world safe for democracy.” This proved to be a misplaced hope, because Hitler used the resulting “unfair” peace treaty to gain control of Germany, and World War II followed.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 41 million, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history — all begun because of an insignificant foreign royal spat. (Halfway around the world a patriotic Minnesota North Woods farm boy volunteered into the U.S. Army and fought in France. He fortunately survived or I wouldn’t have existed.)

Locally, we’ve had numerous neighborhood fights over plants and trees that were planted too close to, or hung over a boundary line; noisy parties; snow that was not shoveled; and a constant accumulation of backyard “junk.” What is trivial to some becomes an unbearable intrusion to others … and sometimes ugly violence follows.


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