For Want of an Oxford Comma, a Court Case Decided

The importance of the Oxford Comma prevails again! This time, it has helped win a court case:

Maine’s law says the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers claimed the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing”, rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. (They are correct!)

And because drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were therefore eligible for overtime pay – backdated over several years. The court sided with the drivers.

Judge Barron, in the opening statement, wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

An amazing victory for the drivers and grammar nerds everywhere.


Facebook “Like” Feature Is Protected Speech under the U.S. Constitution

The case is Bland v. Roberts, 12-1671, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Richmond), reported by Bloomberg:

Using Facebook Inc. (FB)’s “Like” feature to show support for a candidate in an election is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, issued its ruling today in a lawsuit brought by former employees of a sheriff’s office who said they lost their jobs because they supported their boss’s opponent, including by endorsing a campaign page on Facebook.

The appeals court reversed a lower court judge who said that simply clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook page didn’t amount to “a substantive statement” that warrants constitutional protection.

“Liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Traxler said in today’s ruling. “It is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”

In simple terms: using Facebook’s “Like” is protected under the 1st Amendment.

On Patent Law, Life, and Nature

Did you know that genes are patentable? Because I hadn’t until I read Michael Specter’s New Yorker piece summarizing patent law as it applies to life:

Traditionally, patents have applied solely to inventions, granted as a reward for ingenuity and to encourage innovation. Naturally occurring substances, like DNA, were exempt from such laws. Then, in 1980, Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a scientist working for General Electric, filed an application for a patent on a bacterium that he had modified genetically so that it could consume oil. The Patent and Trademark Office rejected Chakrabarty’s application on the ground that the bacterium was a product of nature. Chakrabarty sued, arguing that, by altering the organism, it was his ingenuity that made the bacterium valuable. The case ended up before the Supreme Court, which, by a vote of five to four, ruled in favor of the engineer. “The fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for the purpose of patent law,” the Court wrote. Chakrabarty’s creation became the first life-form to receive a patent.

Since then, genes considered to have been “isolated from their natural state and purified” have been eligible for patent protection. The first such patents were issued for DNA that had been altered to produce specific proteins, such as the insulin used daily by millions of diabetics. Those patents were rarely controversial. Over the years, however, patents have also been granted to people who have identified genes with mutations that are likely to increase the risk of a disease. Any scientist who wants to conduct research on such a gene—even on a small sequence of its DNA—has to pay license fees. The practical effect has been chilling. According to public-health officials and academic leaders, it has stymied research into many types of disease.

This seems particularly outrageous:

A patent on a product of Nature would authorize the patent holder to exclude everyone from observing, characterizing or analyzing, by any means whatsoever, the product of Nature.

In the end, this is big business (but with a cost):

Moreover, when a company patents a gene, it also patents the rights to what that gene (or any fragment of its DNA) might tell us about our health, including our chances of living or dying. A woman who inherits a harmful version of either of the genes that Myriad has under patent, for example, is five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not. She is also at significantly greater risk of developing ovarian cancer. Women who want to know whether they possess those harmful mutations have just one way of finding out: by taking a three-thousand-dollar blood test offered by Myriad Genetics.


Law Schools: A Rip-Off?

In a troubling New York Times piece, we learn how profitable law schools really are. They make graduate school look great by comparsion…

Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.

Whereas some departments are struggling to hire more professors, in law school it is a different story:

It is one of the academy’s open secrets: law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.

In short, law schools have the power to raise prices and expand in ways that would make any company drool. And when a business has that power, it is apparently difficult to resist.

And a striking example from New York Law School (N.Y.L.S.):

N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount…

And the most damning fact in the piece:

From 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.

Run, don’t walk, away from law schools.

Related: Is getting a PhD worth it?