Once again, there has been a nasty collision at the corner of Law and Music. This time the crack-up is in Urbana, Ohio, where the Champaign County Municipal Court is presided over by Hon. Susan J. Fornof-Lippencott. According to that august tribunal's official web site, Judge Fornof-Lippencott is a 1985 graduate of Wittenburg University and a 1988 graduate of the Capital Law School. Said web site reveals the fascinating information that Her Honor is the Chaplain of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and that she and her husband are farmers. In one of the stranger attempts at bolstering one's credentials, Judge Fornof-Lippencott is said to have passed the Ohio Bar on the first try! Huzzah! The pass rate in Ohio in 1988 was 69.1%.
A lucky reporter happened to get wind of unusual doings in Hon. Fornof-Lippencott's court room. It seems that on July 14, 2008, one Andrew Vactor, a 24 year old student at Urbana University, committed an offense against the King's Peace and good order (violation of the local noise ordinance) by blaring rap music from the speakers of his venerable Chevrolet Impala on the public street. Apparently, he had to endure the indignity of being ticketed for his offense by a bicycle officer in that orderly burgh. Hailed into Court to reply to the summons duly issued, the defendant Vactor had the misfortune to appear before Hon. Fornof-Lippencott.
The fine ordered by the Court upon a finding of guilty was $150.00. And if Judge Fornof-Lippencott had stopped there the story would be as remarkable as "dog bites man." The headline "Local Lout Pays Fine For Noise Ordinance Violation" is hardly the stuff of national interest. But, of course, Her Honor did not stop there. Instead, Judge Fornof-Lippencott offered the unlucky Vactor a choice: He could pay the full fine or he could get it reduced to $35.00 by listening to twenty hours of classical music (about $5.75 an hour if my calculator is working properly). And of course, Andrew Vactor, being the ill-starred sap in the story, took the reduced fine and the twenty hours of classical music. He endeavored to serve his sentence last month; he made it through fifteen minutes before he concluded that he really did need to get to basketball practice without delay, so he paid the full $150.00 and went about his business.
It is, in theory, difficult to criticize a judge for seeking to craft a sentence that fits the offense, but doing so on such trivial matters as noise ordinance violations is a massive waste of judicial resources. Petty offenses (or if you prefer, "quality of life offenses") are designed to deter conduct: Mr. Defendant, if you do something that the local legislative body has declared to be unduly bothersome to your neighbors, you will be fined and strictly told not to do it again. Commit offense, get knuckles rapped (pay fine), go ye forth and sin no more. It has been this way roughly since Mr. Smith's pig made all-together too much noise within the bailiwick of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the days of Friar Tuck.
But this centuries-old method of dealing with such petty offenses was not good enough for Hon. Fornof-Lippencott, who looks upon sentencing as a chance to play unlicensed Social Worker and Elevator of the Public Taste. She expressed her displeasure of rap music blared loudly from a Chevrolet Impala operated by the defendant Vactor by making him listen to music she finds more uplifting and pleasurable. Doubtless she deemed this an effort to elevate the said Vactor's musical tastes and to expose him to the many beauties of serious music. Such judicial taste-making is odious.
Leave to one side the fact that there are few things as annoying as having one's sleep disturbed by a moron in a motor vehicle, windows wide open, playing his vehicle's sound system at high volume on a summer's night. Whether the offending noise is Mos Def or Mozart or a defective muffler, noise is noise. Punish it severely -- spare no rod, says I. But this does not excuse Her Honor's desire to play black-robed Preceptor, let alone the shocking "sentence."
Suppose for a moment that an Orthodox Jew, having had a bit too much vodka at a Farbrengen sponsored by the local chapter of Chabad Lubavitch, took it upon himself to stand in front of the Holy Ghost Revival Church of Urbana, O. and scream all sorts of abuse at the Pentecostals leaving the Church late of a Saturday evening following Bible Study. A bicycle officer happens by the grizzly scene and issues a citation to the besotted Hebrew. Fast forward to Judge Fornof-Lippencott's court room. Had Judge Fornof-Lippencott told the defendant "The fine is $150 but I will reduce it to $35 if you spend twenty hours reading the Gospels or the Koran" the screams would have been heard from Bay Ridge to Monterey Bay. Likewise if a militant vegetarian was charged with overly-loud haranguing of a hog butcher and told by Hon. Fornof-Lippencott "I'll reduce the fine to $35.00 if you eat a steak dinner three nights a week for a month."
When anyone -- especially someone who acts under authority of Law (and who passed the Bar Examination on the very first try!) -- uses music as an instrument of punishment, it cheapens music, cheapens the law and frankly coarsens the society the ill-advised jurist intends to uplift. Had Judge Fornof-Lippencott sentenced the unfortunate Vactor to sitting in her court room for 20 hours and listening to her idiotic pontifications, the folks responsible for the enforcement of the Geneva Conventions might have a gilt-edged case.