Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Captain Toke:

Randy Barnett mentions the great DC Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg who was nominated for the Supreme Court, but was then pressured "to withdraw his name when it was disclosed by Nina Totenberg...that he had smoked marijuana in the presence of law students when he was a professor at Harvard Law School."

Note: I don't know much about Ginsburg, but based on what Barnett writes, I'm sure he's the kind of judge I'd greatly respect and be happy to have on the Supreme Court.

But on a lighter note, growing up, I knew Ginsburg as "Captain Toke," mainly because of a really funny, absolutely classic, Saturday Night Live sketch, done around the time of the incident, where John Lovitz played Ginsburg. The episode was entitled, "The Rolling Paper Chase." Dressed as a hippie, he introduces himself to his Harvard Law class, "Hi, I'm Professor Douglas Ginsburg... But you can call me... Captain Toke." His office hours don't begin until midnight. And when his students come to see him, he coaxes them into smoking pot with him before he discusses the law. Then, the "natural law" becomes all the clearer under that marijuana buzz. One student, after smoking up with him, asks, "So what you're saying is that the Constitution was always there...and that Madison just...found it?" Captain Toke slowly nods in an authoritative way influenced by his marijuana stupor. Heavy, really heavy stuff.

What's funny about SNL, and also The Simpsons (when they're both good; I think The Simpsons are consistently better than SNL; even though both have had their share of bad moments) is the way that they get sophisticated writers who can write at different "levels" with jokes that may go over the heads of one audience but immediately followed up by, or put in the context of something that others will find amusing. For instance, growing up (I think I was about 15 when the skit, which I still have on tape from its original broadcast, aired) I've showed that clip to numerous friends who had no freakin' clue who Douglas Ginsburg was; in fact, they thought he was a fictional character created just for that sketch. But they found the sketch hilarious nonetheless.

I think the old Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons were some of the first shows to write at different "levels," entertaining to both a young (children) audience, but also full of references and "inside jokes" -- jazz and classical music (once they had a Wagnerian opera), movie stars, political figures, etc. -- to entertain the parents watching the cartoons with their children.

6 comments:

TMS said...

That's great!

One nerdy quibble though: Ginsburg is very far from being a believer in natural law. He and I had a rather heated lunchtime exchange over this when I was a clerk at IJ some years ago. He's as Borkian as they get.

Jonathan said...

If I worked with him like that, I'd find it oh so tempting to work the SNL skit into a conversation. I don't think I'd have the balls to do that.

Or to "accidentally" call him "Captain Toke" to his face.

Tim said...

The "Captain Toke" sketch sounds like Al Franken wrote it.

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DF said...

When I was a kid, I thought Captain Toke was one of the funniest SNL sketches ever, though I had no idea who Ginsburg was, or to be honest, what all the marijuana references were about.

Then many years later I clerked for the DC Circuit (for a different judge, though) and was delighted to realize that Captain Toke himself worked in the same building. I often needled the Ginsburg clerks about it ("Hey, how's the Captain doing these days?") but never said anything to Ginsburg about it, of course. Not only would that have been way way out of line for a clerk (or anyone else working at the CADC) but Ginsburg was apparently still very upset about the whole confirmation thing, even decades later.

The whole Captain Toke episode has always struck me as an interesting counterpoint to the Bork nomination fiasco just prior. Conservatives still lament what happened to Bork as character assassination, but the opposition to Bork was more or less substantive. In some instances, his opponents misrepresented Bork's judicial philosophy and some of the cases he decided, but for the most part, the reason his nomination failed is that Senators and the public didn't like that philosophy. By contrast, Ginsburg was dinged--by the very Republicans who nominated him--for a "character" issue. They didn't really have any objection to his judicial philosophy, which was pretty close to that of his fellow U of Chicago grad Bork. They just didn't like the whiff of liberal permissiveness that Ginsburg's use of weed connoted.

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