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Liars on the Bench

June 15, 2000

When I made bold to suggest, on various occasions in the past, that it was remarkable, if not unconscionable, that the word "dollar" was without definition, I was met with a firestorm of indifference, except for a few thoughtful readers who felt that my objection was frivolous, or irrelevant.

I was reminded of this recently in a legal matter involving the Missouri Department of Revenue. A citizen, facing a naked assessment by the Department, asked, via interrogatory, "Is 'dollar' the unit of monetary measurement in Missouri?" The Department's answer: "Yes."

The next question followed logically: "What, specifically, is the substance of the money measured in dollar units? Is "dollar" a measurement by weight, or volume?" The answer: "Respondent objects to this question. It is vague and irrelevant. The dollar is the basic monetary unit of the United States of America, including the state of Missouri." This from the Senior Counsel of the Revenue Department! He admits that the "dollar" is "the basic monetary unit," but when asked of what it is a unit (which is defined as a specific quantity used in measurement) he finds it irrelevant. Would he find it irrelevant if some citizen paid his taxes with Canadian dollars, or Hong Kong dollars? I suspect he would object mightily, but on what basis, having admitted that the nature of the money is vague and irrelevant? Of course, Missouri law makes only the silver coins of the United States a legal tender in Missouri, and the Supreme Court has ruled that federal legal tender laws don't apply to state taxes. The Constitution, moreover, mandates that the states make nothing but gold and silver coin a legal tender. Our state official has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and laws of Missouri, but it's not the law, but the profits, which are taken seriously. For the last dozen years, if not longer, Missouri has taken in about two billion in "excess revenue" yearly. No mere law is going to get in the way of that!

Asked "Are federal reserve notes dollars? Are they notes?" he replied, again, "Objection. The question is vague." But these terms are the ones used in our laws. If they are vague, then perhaps the law should be voided for vagueness!

It isn't just state officials who seem befuddled by the money question. Federal judges are confused, too. Led by U.S. District Judge Spencer Williams, they have filed suit recently to obtain a pay raise, claiming that Congress has violated the Constitution's guarantee that their compensation shall not be diminished during their tenure. Williams claims that inflation has, in fact, diminished their incomes, and wants retroactive raises to remedy this injustice.

Well, it's just common sense, isn't it? Everyone knows that you measure income by buying power, since the term "dollar" is without definition. And who can deny that the buying power of the dollar diminishes every year? Granted, the amount of the diminution is hard to calculate, since the "market basket" of commodities cobbled together by the government to calculate "buying power" is changed from time to time to better represent the public's buying habits. But quibbling aside, the fact remains that the judges certainly seem to have a point: their incomes have been diminished via the shrinking buying power of those incomes, and that is in violation of the Constitution. At some point, I am sure the judges will swear to the truth of their claim that their incomes have been diminished.

On the other hand, they've already sworn the opposite. Every year, when they sign their income tax returns, they state, under penalty of perjury, that their incomes are just the same as they have been for years: $141,000 annually, for district judges, $149,000 for circuit judges, and $173,600 for Supreme Court justices. They are swearing, in effect, that their incomes haven't changed over the years since their last raise. Perhaps the legal sophistication of the judges makes it possible for them to swear to both positions: their incomes have been diminished, and remain the same.

Suppose the judges win their raise, on the basis claimed: diminution of income by inflation. That means, obviously, that income cannot be measured by dollar figures, since their "dollar" income hadn't changed. The Court (other federal judges) would have agreed. Wouldn't that apply to all of us? When you sign your income tax return, under penalty of perjury, the jurat you sign states that the information given is "true, complete, and correct," to the best of your knowledge and belief. What if you believe, as the federal judges believe, that the only accurate measure of your income is via its buying power? What if your knowledge is that the term "dollar" is without definition, and thus can hardly be used as a measuring unit? How can the data provided be correct, when measured either in terms of a fictional unit (dollar) or a market basket of various, and changing, content?

It is heartening to see federal judges having recourse to the Constitution, and it certainly puts the lie to the claim of some that they wouldn't recognize that document if they saw it. Of course, the only section with which they seem concerned is the one which guarantees that their incomes shall not be diminished during their time on the bench. Perhaps, having made the acquaintance of the Constitution, the solons might be tempted to read further: Congress shall have the power to coin money; no state shall make anything but gold and silver coin a legal tender; no state shall coin money. They might be intrigued enough to research the original coinage act, which decreed that any Treasury official found guilty of debasing the currency should suffer death, or the ruling of an earlier Supreme Court that "bills of credit" are forbidden, as are "laws" making them a legal tender.

Perhaps they might even come to realize that they are making fools of themselves by swearing, on one occasion, that their incomes are measured in "dollars," while maintaining, virtually simultaneously, that their incomes cannot be measured in "dollars," but only in "buying power." If this causes them to consider the ludicrous, unlawful, and illogical monetary system with which we are afflicted, and make the appropriate reforms, it'll be worth it to give the judges a raise. Don't hold your breath. It would be naïve to assume that what the judges rule for themselves would apply to you, too!


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