Sunday, December 11, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 11, Ivy Taylor on the Tangible

On United States of America v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster (or, In Praise of the Tangible)

Ivy Taylor


The specific facts of Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster demand attention. The federal government, on the strength of an alleged violation of the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, had a 206.3 Troy ounce golden rooster that had spent two years in the dining room of a casino, seized by, and remanded into the custody of, the U.S. Marshals. United States v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster, 186 F. Supp. 526 (D. Nev. 1960). Some accounts say that the rooster was arrested, which is hilarious, but imprecise. The rooster was treated as an object, as is evident in the Court's comparison of the rooster, in an opinion denying the casino owner's effort to obtain custody of the rooster, to an automobile. 186 F. Supp. at 527. It does appear to be true that, if the government prevailed, the rooster would be seized and forfeit, and likely melted down and returned to Fort Knox. See United States v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster, 191 F. Supp. 198, 199 (D. Nev. 1961). Ultimately, a jury found that the rooster was an “object d'art” of “fabricated gold,” exempt from the Gold Reserve Act. United States v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster, 208 F. Supp. 99 (D. Nev. 1962). The Court overruled the government's protestations that such verdict erred, because, the government contended, the rooster was not “a customary artistic use” for gold. 208 F. Supp. at 101. The rooster returned to the casino. 

I enjoy imagining the bronze rooster dressed in prison garb that the casino installed during the two years the case was pending. Link at para. 13. I delight in the idea of the rooster itself, presented at trial (would it create undue prejudice if it sat at the defense table during the proceedings?). But I especially love the title: United States v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster. There is a facially boring, but genuinely exciting, reason for the title; it's a case involving in rem jurisdiction—that is, the exercise of the Court's power over a specific object, rather than a specific person.

In civil procedure, which is the most odious class for first-year law students, we spent at least a month going over specific personal jurisdiction (fair play and substantial justice, International Shoe, Pennoyer, stream of commerce), a week on general personal jurisdiction (Helicopteros, continuous and systematic contacts), and maybe five minutes on in rem jurisdiction. 

I can give you a whole lesson on in rem jurisdiction right here. How do you know where to file a lawsuit? You file it where the thing you're fighting about is. Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 246 (1958). You have a problem with a golden rooster in Vegas? Sue in Vegas. Boom. That's in rem jurisdiction. (Of course it can get messier than that–what’s power over a thing if not “an elliptical way of referring to jurisdiction over the interests of persons in a thing,” Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 207 (1977), and isn’t everything actually quasi in rem where sufficient minimum contacts are required? Id. at 208. But when we’re dealing with tangible objects, not trust pledges or stock property or fungible assets, it’s pretty straightforward.)

I am drawn to the in personam jurisdiction side of things–the ​​abstraction, the qualified, the "it's complicated"–but I recognize that the concrete example, the short, declarative sentence, is the only way anyone else can understand what I am trying to communicate. (In undergrad, my strictest professor told us that if you can’t summarize your thesis in a single, simple sentence, you don’t know what you’re saying. Ouch.) For instance, in the early pandemic, on a Zoom call with strangers, I said that one of my recent interests was in memorializing rare feelings. It was clear that no one understood what I meant. But if I pointed to the end of The Burning Girl, when the main character suddenly realizes her mother realizes the main character is in some ways unknowable to her creator, they might have said, oh, that rare feeling. 

Lately, I’ve been leaning into the crisp joy of tangible reality. Almost every morning this winter, my school-aged son complains about socks. “Why do I have to wear these?!” he whines. I tell him that they are to keep his feet warm, and when he doesn’t like that, and says his feet get too warm, I say either “society” or “gym class,” which is a more specific word for society. While he capitulates, I wiggle my toes in cotton (or nylon) and think about how weird it is that we have feet, and socks, and that I’m comfortable enforcing norms–that much of parenthood is the enforcement of norms–that I have never fully interrogated.

And I love a good grounding detail. This week, at work, when I was talking about a fraud argument in a probate case, I gestured at eye level, then chest level, then to my left, at the floor, as though the argument were physical. Ugh, the physical. This body I drag around. “Isn't it weird that your teeth just erode until you die?” a colleague asked me after a conference call. 

When I told a friend I wanted to write about the Golden Rooster case, and that I was looking for the poetic equivalent of in rem jurisdiction, which I described as, “Look at this thing, it’s not complicated, it’s in my power,” she suggested I read some Wallace Stevens. Instead of doing that, I pulled an old birthday present—The Wallace Stevens Case: Law and the Practice of Poetry by Thomas C. Grey, would recommend—off my bookshelf, and remembered that Wallace Stevens was a lawyer. (Well, he was a VP for The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, and wrote legal opinions about why they should approve or deny claims on surety bonds. Grey at 14, 16.) As relayed in that book, Wallace Stevens set up clear boundaries in his life between the short-sentenced, clear writing of his day job and the obscure, ambiguous, mutable, and apparently feminine world of poetry. See, e.g., Grey at 24-26, 48, 50, 57, 59. And if Stevens had to decide between viewing the law as Y, a set of coercive signals, transmitted by a transparent and unambiguous medium, or, X, as a "distinctive manner of imagining the real," a social construct of ritual, drama, myth, and poetry, he would almost certainly choose Y. Grey at 38, 51.

I like to bring that kind of tension to the office. So when I drank too much at last year's holiday party, I started conversations by asking people if they knew who Wallace Stevens was, then berating them when they didn't. Later, when I was less churlish, I requested and received permission to discuss Wallace Stevens, and his poem, “The Motive for Metaphor” at a lunch meeting for all of the attorneys at my firm, called Attorney Roundtable. At that meeting, I told them he was a modernist poet in the first half of the last century, that he was a well-regarded legal writer at The Hartford, and gave some background on the "scientific" and "humanistic" approaches to the law and on the law and literature movement. When I heard myself starting to say things like, “Because we are human beings, who, I think, have interests beyond, you know, the uses of power and objective reality,” I decided to tack back to the text, and asked for a volunteer (none appeared) to read the poem out loud.

The first two verses refer to a “you” who likes the half-dead autumn with wind that “repeats words without meaning,” and a “spring/ With the half colors of quarter things." The poem then moves to a transitional third verse about an “obscure moon lighting an obscure world/ Of things that would never be quite expressed,/ Where you yourself were never quite yourself,” and so on, until we end up “Desiring the exhilarations of changes:” Oh colon, you confident punctuation, you exhilarating change! And then here it comes, in the middle of verse four, our titular “The motive for metaphor, shrinking from” all of those hard, concrete things we shrink from, “The weight of primary noon,/ The A B C of being” until we end, in the last lines of verse five, at “—the sharp flash,/ The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant, X.”

In law school, we learned to brief a case by building the essential facts into the statement of the rule. The most important words of the 10,000 or so allowed in an appeal brief are in the sentence that frames the issue on appeal. 

“What is X?” I ask all of my bosses and my few underlings. And what a specific, but not rare, feeling that evoked in me. What a relief it is to imagine that anything can be boiled down to a single variable and an answerable question. What kind of comfortable confinement do I construct with these minute, arbitrary, divisions.

If I was limited to the context of Stevens' poem, I'd say X is death. That's the end of the alphabet of any human's existence, and it’s certainly a “fatal” something from which to shrink. But given all these facts—the frame of the poem, the frame of the meeting, the frame of Wallace Stevens's decision not to accept the Norton lectureship in poetry because it would detract from his precise scholarship of surety bonds—I suggest that X is me, standing at flat edge of Attorney Roundtable, one of dozens of adults in human bodies that are slowly deteriorating, .8 hours deep in time billed to overhead, who navigate our minds past the “obscure world/ Of things that would never be quite expressed,” and express this: here we are, shortly after primary noon. The rooster, though excessively gold, may remain fully formed, because it is an object d'art. Being is as orderly as A B C. There is jurisdiction, it’s in my power, because look at this thing. It’s not complicated. Boom.


Ivy Taylor is living that sweet, sweet MFA/JD life, and occasionally publishes essays on public radio.

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