The case of the estate planning class discussion of a murder-suicide

One of the wonderful things about attending Hamline Law School in the early 1980s was the presence of professor M. Arnold Lyons, formerly a founding partner of the Robins, Lyons, and Davis law firm–which has evolved into a world-famous litigation firm which I believe is now called Robins, Kaplan, Miller, and Ciresi.

Arnie was an elderly man, his head and shoulders bent forward due to some affliction of age. He taught a very popular estate planning course in one of the 90 seat amphitheaters. For some reason (I heard about this second hand from a number of those present), the course discussion lead him to describe a famous murder case where a prominent dentist living in the wealthy community of North Oaks, for inexplicable reasons, killed his family with a hammer and then killed himself.

Arnie drew a floor plan of the dentist’s house on the whiteboard, stick figures indicating where the bodies were found, and squiggly red lines to indicate blood trails. Well at some point, this became too much for one of the students and he passed out. The student was described as falling out of his chair such that his feet were sticking up in the air and his head down on the ground.

Hearing the commotion, Arnie turned and asked what had happened. Once the unconscious student was explained, he peered above his glasses at the class and matter of factly asked “Shall I continue?” The students said yes, and he returned to the board to finish his drawing and story.

A couple more notes on Arnie. I would visit his office from time to time to chat. One on occasion he told me that one of his partners (I can’t remember if it was Mr. Robins or Mr. Davis) was such a good rainmaker that when this man was being inducted into the military and standing nude in a line of nude men waiting to get their immunization shots, he signed up the doctor, who was giving the shots, as a client.

Another time, Arnie was sad that his barber of 30 years had died. At that time I found this sort of thing hard to fathom and exclaimed that I hadn’t done anything for 30 years. Now I envy a man who can have the same barber for 30 years.

Arnie was much beloved by the student body, and won professor of the year perhaps twice during my three years at Hamline.

Beware the Utopian Scheme

For me, perhaps the most dismissive thing I can say about a mode of thinking is to characterize it as a utopian scheme. To my thinking, its nothing short of an intellectual slap in the face. The sad fact that this is the primary mode of academic thinking in America today is a topic for another occasion. While I always know such a scheme when I see one, I thought it would be interesting to try and create a definition. Its probably a utopian scheme when:

  • The costs of implementation are immediate and concrete and the benefits are futuristic and speculative.
  • The scheme has never been implemented and found to work in a limited setting, or did so with unsustainable subsidization. Such schemes are almost always unleashed untested on the grandest scale possible due to the intellectual beauty of the theory in the minds of its naive and credulous adherents.
  • Whenever the scheme appears to be failing, the advocates can claim that its failure is due to incomplete or imperfect implementation, or perhaps a short-sighted impatience on the part of its critics.

The regrettable events surrounding the discussion of Rodd v. Rodd Electrotype

Piling through appellate opinions is generally a dry and plodding business, and corps (law student slang for Corporations class) was no exception, so it didn’t take much out of the ordinary to liven things up. Corps was held in a 90 seat amphitheater type classroom. The day we reviewed Rodd Electrotype, I was sitting on the right hand side of the room. Well, we get into the facts of a case involving the Rodd family, shareholders in a family business, and the student presenting the case notes that the plaintiff’s name is Harry Rodd. So I lean over to the guy next to me and say “Gotta love this guy’s name.” He did a quick laugh-snort and we left it at that.

Then I see over on the left side of the room a classmate (A very successful real estate lawyer in Florida today) whispering to the guy next to him, probably something along the same lines. But they don’t leave it at that. In fact, they appeared to have gotten themselves giggling and could not stop. It was contagious, and pretty soon the whole left wing of the room is laughing, and the Professor is looking up asking what was so funny–he wants in on the joke. Nobody enlightened him, and the class calmed down and returned their attention to the tawdry affairs of the Rodd family.

[The case was in a casebook and I can’t find it today in the appellate reports, though I do note a related case, Donoghue v. Rodd Electrotype at 328 N.E.2d (1975), with Harry among the litigants.]

Professor Olson’s kindest act of mercy

I don’t know if it was grandiosity or naiveté, but I just can’t imagine what came into my mind when I registered for Corporate Income Tax I. Because congress acts at the behest of special interests and does so by committee, the code of internal revenue is a prolix and illogical beast. I felt I was more or less following the material during class, and in that I was entirely mistaken. Like all law school classes, the grade was entirely determined by a single essay final exam where we write in blue books (blank notebooks supplied by the exam proctor). I would guess it was a two or three hour exam. The question would state a single corporate financial series of financial activities, and we were to fully discuss all the tax implications thereof.

During the exam, I thought things were maybe a bit shaky, but I thought I was doing ok until I got to some capital gains issues that I recognized were governed by an IRS statute or regulation nicknamed the “section 1231 hotchpot” where various transactions were grouped together for tax purposes. A couple of minutes into that I realized I was completely at sea. For perhaps the only time in law school, I had no idea what to put down in the blue books. My mind has blanked out the traumatic memory of what happened next, but I must have scribbled something out and turned in the bluebooks.

Now Hamline law school had a first floor area leading to some offices and classrooms and a large stairway going to the second floor with the law library and professor’s offices. I was walking on the first floor a few days later when I heard a voice from above bellow out “KNUTSON!” I looked back and up and saw Professor Olson from the second floor railing. He shouted down ranting “Your handwriting is horrible! I could barely read your [tax] exam! Good God, its unreadable!”, and so on. Well, my handwriting is indeed bad, and when I didn’t know what I was doing I imagine it got much worse. When the grades went up, I found I received a C+. This was an act of infinite mercy as I worried I had written an F exam (Well, perhaps there was partial credit for identifying the Hotchpot issue). This wasn’t the main reason Professor Olson was one of my favorite professors, but it didn’t hurt. I will also note that I did earn a four credit A, fair and square, from him in Corporations, and chose not to take Corporate Income Tax II. 😉

The Steadfast Patrolman

I recall having lunch with a retired police officer a few years ago. He recounted this story from his early days as a patrolman and husband.

He was on routine patrol late one night when he noticed some sort of disturbance at a motel. A woman in a fur coat was standing outside the door of a motel room yelling. Then she hopped in her car and sped off. I think she was driving a cadillac convertible, but that may be my embelleshment. He pulled her over for speeding and when he got to her car, a stunningly beautiful young woman tearfully recounted how she had a big argument with her husband on her wedding night. She then asked if she could get out of the speeding ticket, and opened her fur coat, revealing she was completely nude underneath. He took it in for a second and said “Please leave, right now!” I got the sense he was worried about how long his conscience could restrain his passions if she stuck around.

After a long and wonderful marriage, his wife died, and he never married again. A modest and faithful man, I am proud to count this patrolman among my friends.

************* Let’s put some Nathan Hales here *****************

As a young programmer, I was reviewing some assembler code and I noted something like this:

  • LA   R6,STDHD
  • BALR R4,R6
  • BAS13     SR   R4,R4

I was used to seeing asterisks as a means of setting out comments, but I asked Sherm what the Nathan Hale part meant. He explained that Nathan Hale, an early American Revolutionary War patriot, prior to his execution by the British, was famously heard to exclaim “I regret that I have but one as-te-risk for my country!” 😉