On bright ideas and a crooked judge | Bleader

On bright ideas and a crooked judge

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Ian Ayres is full of ideas. Earlier this afternoon I wrote about his "secret donation booth" plan for campaign finance reform. And in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, the Yale law professor and a University of California economist, Aaron S. Edlin, proposed taxing inequality.

I've never met Ayres but I've long respected him for his original thinking. He and Barry Nalebuff, a Yale management professor, wrote a 2003 book called Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small. "Why not dream of things that never were and work to make them real?" the authors asked.

I've also respected Ayres for the nerve he showed a couple decades ago in a Chicago courtroom. I learned about this episode when I was researching a book on our felony courthouse at 26th Street and California.

Ayres went toe-to-toe with the fearsome judge Thomas Maloney on a January morning in 1990. In his own way, Maloney was also a resourceful thinker. He was a hanging judge, but he could bring himself to find reasonable doubt in murder cases. As was later revealed, his rate for this was $10,000. A reasonable man, he had a sliding scale: if the defendant was charged with something less than murder, his acquittal fee was also less.

Ayres's client, Dino Titone, had been convicted and sentenced to death by Maloney. Ayres was teaching at Northwestern law school then and volunteering with the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The coalition asked him to represent Titone on a motion for a new trial. In Maloney's courtroom, Ayres cited unusual grounds for his motion: he said Titone's father had tried to bribe Maloney into an acquittal, but Maloney had gotten wind of a federal probe of the Cook County courts and had convicted and condemned Titone not because of the evidence, but to prove his integrity.

A former boxer, Maloney was 64 on this January morning and had been a judge for 13 years. Ayres was 30 and three years out of law school. Titone, in fact, was his first client. Maloney didn't appreciate the novice lawyer's implications. He unloaded on Ayres in the courtroom for daring to question his probity. Then he summoned Ayres to his chambers and blasted him again.

Ayres held his ground, and ultimately Titone won a new trial before a different judge. He was convicted again, but this time sentenced to natural life. Maloney was convicted in 1993 of fixing murder cases, and sentenced to 15 years. He finished serving his sentence in 2007, and died the next year.

As for taxing inequality, Ayres and Edlin note that in the last 25 years, the average one-percenter income has climbed from 12.5 times median income to 36 times. They propose an automatic extra tax on one-percenters every year inequality increases. Excessive income wouldn't be targeted—instead, inequality would be capped. "The sky is the limit for the rich as long as the 'rising tide lifts all boats,'" Ayres and Edlin wrote. "The tax gives job creators an extra reason to make sure that corporate wealth does in fact trickle down."

Though Ayres and Edlin offer a new method, targeting inequality instead of income isn't a new idea. Last year, long before Occupy Wall Street, Duke professor Kenneth Dodge suggested in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tying the pay of CEOs to workers at their companies. Executives of publicly-traded companies and firms doing business with the government could make as much as they want, so long as their total compensation wasn't more than 100 times that of their companies' lowest-paid full-time workers.

Like Ayres, Dodge has a Chicago connection, only a much deeper one. He grew up on the south side (he was a classmate of mine at Saint Rita high school.) Now he directs Duke's center for child and family policy. In his op-ed last year, he pointed to research showing that inequality worsens child health and educational achievement; contributes to stress disorders, substance abuse, and cardiovascular disease; and "may be a more important cause of mental disorders and distress than poverty itself."

"One might quibble with the ratio I propose," Dodge wrote. "Go ahead and make it 200. Or 50. If we begin to debate the magnitude of wealth disparity that we can tolerate as a society, then we are moving in the right direction."

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