Denver Bar Association
March 2008
© 2008 The Docket and Denver Bar Association. All Rights Reserved.
All material from The Docket provided via this World Wide Web server is copyrighted by the Denver Bar Association. Before accessing any specific article, click here for disclaimer information.


A Nudge from a Nudje

by Craig Eley

In defense of his actions in kicking a news photographer in January, newbie state representative Douglas Bruce maintained that it was just a "nudge." This incident and its aftermath occupied the media for days, which was surprising, since it had absolutely nothing to do with Britney Spears.

Bruce contended that he was only trying to maintain the decorum of the House, which was being disrupted by an "unruly photographer" during a prayer. This photographer, according to Bruce, had promised he would not take his picture during the prayer and broke his word.

Thus, Bruce remained unapologetic. He did admit, however, to an error, declaring, "I made a mistake. I trusted a journalist, and I won’t do that again."1

It was likely that his failure to even consider an apology was what fueled the House resolution to censure Bruce, which passed 62 to 1. Before he had even been in office a week, Bruce made history, being the first Colorado House member to have ever been censured.

With a Cane He was Able

There is no question that the Rocky Mountain News photographer who suffered the wrath of Bruce came through the ordeal totally uninjured. Compare this to the actions of an authentic American hero, Sam Houston. A former congressman from Tennessee, Houston emerged from his Washington, D.C. boarding house one day in 1832 to encounter William Stanbery, a congressman from Ohio, walking by. Perturbed by some remarks the Ohioan had made on the floor of the House regarding one of Houston’s pet causes, Houston found it a convenient opportunity to pummel the congressman with his cane (hickory, of course, as any ardent follower of Andrew Jackson would carry). Although it is not clear what injuries Rep. Stanbery suffered in the attack, it can be assumed that Houston, a veteran who suffered three near-fatal wounds during the War of 1812, was a fellow who didn’t mess around when it came to combat.

Houston was thereafter arrested and put on trial before a joint session of Congress with the Supreme Court presiding.2 He was defended by attorney Francis Scott Key. It is hard to imagine what kind of defense could excuse such an act, but Key was a courageous lawyer. It was during the War of 1812 that he had the temerity to go out to a British vessel to argue for the release from custody of an American client of his. How many of us would march onto the warship of an enemy during war to retrieve a client? Okay, maybe if he had a balance due on his bill, but other than that? No way.

Although Key persuaded the British to release his client, he was not allowed to return to the shores of Baltimore, his hosts using the excuse that it would be too dangerous for him to row back to land, what with the beginning of the rockets’ red glare and all. So, it was during the shelling of Fort McHenry that Key scribbled out the lines of what came to be known as "The Star Spangled Banner," which he had written to be sung to the English tune "To Anacreon in Heaven."

Bar-Side Sobriety Test

Of particular interest to lawyers is the fact that "To Anacreon in Heaven" was frequently sung in British pubs. Because of the tune’s difficulty, if a patron could sing a verse of the song and stay on key (no pun intended), he was deemed sober enough to be able to handle another drink. Thus, the melody for "The Star Spangled Banner" appears to have been the first documented sobriety test.

It is clear that we whupped the British in the Revolutionary War, held our own against them in the War of 1812, and saved their bacon in the two world wars. Yet, whenever Queen Elizabeth’s subjects hear "The Star Spangled Banner," as they hopefully will at the Olympics this summer, they must chuckle to themselves at the thought that we would be so naive as to use a drinking song as our national anthem. Think how Americans would react if a country decided to set its national anthem to the tune of "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." We would howl with laughter every time we heard it. It’s bad enough that the French ridicule us for not only having mountains named the Grand Tetons, but for cheerfully giving that name to a national park, as well. The English are within their rights to forever think of us as rubes for not being able to come up with something better than a song sung by besotted Brits in a bar.

But back to Sam Houston. Congress apparently had nothing better to do and his trial lasted an entire month. I hope Key was being paid by the hour, because there is no record that he ever made a nickel in royalties from his most famous musical composition. Houston himself held forth for a full day of impassioned oratory and, in arguments remarkably similar to those put forth by Douglas Bruce, asserted that he was defending his honor and, besides, Stanbery deserved the beating.

The Fellow Rose from Texas

Houston was found guilty of assault and demeaning a member of Congress (demeaning a member of Congress is a crime? I think I just did that in the January Docket!). Congress issued a public reprimand and ordered Houston to pay a $500 fine, which he never did. As unapologetic as Douglas Bruce, Houston high-tailed it to Texas. Four years later he became the first president of the Republic of Texas, from which, it is supposed, he would have been able to travel to the United States and throttle as many people as he might have wished, while enjoying diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

As for Francis Scott Key, he eventually received his due in 1970 by being inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame3, where he is enshrined with such notables as Mike Stoller (composer of "Yakety Yak - Don’t Talk Back" and "I’m a Hog for You, Baby").

Interestingly enough, Congressman Stanbery was, later in 1832, censured by the House for using "unparliamentary language." He subsequently failed to obtain his party’s nomination for re-election and spent the next 40 years practicing law in Ohio. Stanbery’s story may therefore have some application to the Bruce incident, since both lawmakers were censured. From what I hear of the proceedings of the British parliament, it is hard to conjure up what language could possibly be considered "unparliamentary," but perhaps things were different 180 years ago. It is fortunate for Bruce that the Colorado House apparently has no prohibition on unparliamentary language, since in a seven page written defense of his actions which Bruce handed out to his House colleagues, he referred to Speaker of the House Romanoff as an "executioner."

The Shot Not Heard ‘Round the World

It is an interesting historical footnote that when Houston decided that Stanbery required a caning, he was unaware that the congressman was carrying a loaded pistol (apparently, what we have come to know as the law of the Old West also used to be the law of the Old East). Upon being attacked by Houston, Stanbery drew his weapon, shoved it against Houston’s chest, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for Houston, the gun misfired. But think of how history might have been changed if the pistol had not malfunctioned.

Had he been dead, Houston would obviously not have been available in 1836 to lead the Texas forces at the Battle of San Jacinto, where General Santa Anna was defeated and captured. Without the leadership of the battle-scarred Houston, the Battle of San Jacinto could have been lost, Texas (which at that time included part of what is now Colorado) would still be a part of Mexico, and no one would remember the Alamo. The official language of Texas would be Spanish, instead of whatever it is they speak there today. George W. Bush, himself a Texan, could well be the president of Mexico. The Mexican military, which lacks any kind of international reputation, might have invaded Iraq, and instead of declaring "Mission Accomplished" (as the Untied States did years ago), it might still be embroiled in a seemingly endless conflict there today.

All things considered, it seems a little unfair that Sam Houston could ambush someone on the street and beat the daylights out of him, and then become president of a sovereign nation, while Douglas Bruce suffers censure for an inoffensive kick. And Houston assaulted a congressman, while Bruce just went after a privacy-invading news photographer. I mean, aren’t these the guys who killed Princess Di?

To compound the disparate treatment of these two politicians, Houston has been commemorated with a 67 foot tall statue of himself in Huntsville, Texas (complete with his famous cane), the largest statue of an American in the world (Paul Bunyan doesn’t count). Compare this to how Colorado commemorates Douglas Bruce: with the word "de-Bruce," used when governmental entities seek to become free of limitations on receiving income. De-Bruce it has a vaguely pejorative connotation, like trying to get rid of fleas.

Bruce the Bruiser

The difference may be that Houston had an engaging personality, while Bruce has not been accused of that. The headline of this article uses the word "nudje," a Yiddish noun for an annoying person (the "u" is pronounced like the "oo" in "nook"). Even Bruce’s political allies would concede that "annoying" is a very mild word for the man. Columnist Mike Rosen, who never met a Democrat he couldn’t bash, wrote of Republican Bruce that "his abrasive attitude and demeanor make him his own worst enemy."4

In his written defense, Bruce argued that to censure him would "politically cripple" him. Even those who may believe that Bruce got a raw deal for a minor offense need not believe that the House’s action will damage him politically. After all, this is a man who had business cards printed that listed his occupation as "Terrorist" (although I doubt he carries them anymore, especially when in an airport). He has for decades cultivated the boorish image that Rosen documented. He was elected county commissioner in El Paso County, and later chosen by a vacancy committee to fill a House seat, by people who know him well. I have a feeling that kicking a member of the Denver media and getting cross-wise with the Capitol establishment will do nothing but endear him to many of the people of Colorado Springs. If not for term limits, he could probably retain his seat for life.

Come to think of it, maybe he should start carrying a cane.


1 For video of Bruce’s complete remarks during his censure proceeding, go to http://www.coloradochannel.net, click "Archived Video" and select Jan. 24, 2008. Move the slider to the 18:38 minute mark.

2 Some sources say the trial was only before the House, rather than the House and Senate jointly. The author was too lazy to seek out the definitive word on this, if such exists, and went with the version that makes the best story.

3 Those who are interested can check out the other songwriter greats at http://www.songwritershalloffame.org.

4 "De-Bruce Douglas Bruce," Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 25, 2008.


Back
Member Benefits DBA Governance Committees Public Interest The Docket Metro Volunteer Lawyers DBA Young Lawyers Division Legal Resource Directory DBA Staff The Docket