Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shingles: the avoidable disease - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently I went up to San Luis Obispo to visit my aunt. One basic rule in life is that family is first, and I try to gauge my actions accordingly. My aunt is experiencing some medical problems, including Parkinson’s disease and the maladies of old age, because she is blessed to be 90 years old. But she also has shingles.

Before she got this disease, I did not know much about it. Now I find that it can be a truly debilitating illness that involves mild-to-severe tingling, itching, burning, or even shooting pain. My aunt is one of those who is experiencing severe pain from it, which she equates to a strong elastic band that is stretched too tightly around her waist. And it hurts her to do everything, including just lying in bed.

Technically this is known as the varicella zoster virus, and it comes from the herpes family. It is the same virus that caused our chicken pox when we were children. In fact, only those who earlier had chicken pox can get shingles. That same virus stays dormant in humans for many years, but can become active again, usually after we turn 50 years old. Medical science’s best estimate of the reason for the flare-up is increased tension and stress.

Fortunately the disease can be avoidable, because now there is a vaccination for it. At the end of 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended that all adults ages 60 and older get that vaccination. I was told that people under 60 can obtain the shot only with a prescription, but for those over 60 a prescription is not required.

People who are most at risk to contract the disease are those over 60, and those who have medical problems that affect the immune system, like HIV or cancer, and those who take drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids and medications given after organ transplants. People who never contracted chicken pox will not get shingles, but of course they are still at risk for the chicken pox.

Shingles is usually first evident as a rash or blisters on the skin, typically on just one side of the body. It can rarely lead to really severe complications like blindness and death, and about one in five people who contract the disease will experience severe pain. According to the CDC, about 1 million people in the United States contract the disease each year, and the vaccination is about 50% effective. Once contracted, the disease is treatable, but the earlier it is detected and treated, the better.

Just to be sure about whether I should get the shot myself, I contacted both my family doctor and another medical doctor who is a personal friend and asked them for their recommendations. Both of them told me that they recommended that I get the shot, and the one who is over 60 said he himself had already been vaccinated. So I got it too.

The problem is that the vaccination is expensive. I heard that it was being offered at the pharmacy at a Vons grocery store, so that was where I went. But even that cost me $210. My doctor told me it would have cost $250 at his office. Both doctors told me that my insurance wouldn’t cover it, but the pharmacist gave me the forms to submit anyway.

Given my aunt’s experience, I believe the vaccination is a deal even at four times the price. But why are vaccinations like this so expensive? Well, the simple reason is that it costs a pharmaceutical company hundreds of millions of dollars to perform the required studies before the FDA will certify almost any new drug. And it almost always takes more than a decade for that process to be completed. Often other countries have new medications available to the public many years sooner than we do, and those medications are reducing pain, curing diseases and even saving lives. But our FDA basically justifies the delay and expense by saying that “we can’t be too careful.” My explanation is that “the bureaucracy must be served.”

It may be true in some cases that some new medications could cause harm to the users. But, like anything else in life, there should be a balance. Yes some new medications could cause harm, but waiting those long extra years will also bring harms of their own. Why? Because many of the new medications will themselves save lives and alleviate suffering.

So how can we strike the best balance? Hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible for putting any medications on the market without sufficient research and study by allowing the person harmed to bring a lawsuit for negligence. That is the best way to maximize the benefits and reduce the harms. And this will also significantly reduce the cost of all medications, such as the vaccination for shingles.

Although I am not a medical doctor, based upon what I have learned, I recommend that anyone older than 60 who has had chicken pox get the vaccination. I also suggest people younger than 60 with health problems that put them into any of the categories of greater risk expressly consult with their doctors about getting the vaccination as well. I have passed this information on to you because this disease can be so painful and debilitating that I thought you would want to join me in taking all reasonable steps to avoid it.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at

Monday, January 19, 2009

Books for the ‘resistant reader’ - by Judge Jim Gray

In an earlier column we discussed one of the best ways for young people to expand their horizons and become more sophisticated in the world — and that is by reading. Improved reading skills will also, of course, increase their ability to do well in school, perform well on the SAT, and obtain and hold good jobs in the future. But, unfortunately, there are many young people who have still not learned or even been exposed to the joys and benefits of this wonderful pastime. Recently I spoke to a county librarian about this problem, and she told me that she had prepared a list of books for “resistant readers” with this in mind. I will share it with you so you can assist the resistant readers in your lives.

But first I will give you my own list. It begins with “Fox in Sox” by Dr. Seuss. Picture young children sitting on their parents’ laps and reading together a “story” composed of tongue twisters with crazy characters. This book is fun, challenging, endearing — and silly! When I presided over the Abused and Neglected Children’s calendar in Juvenile Court, I bought numbers of copies of this book and gave them to parents and temporary guardians so that “my” children could enjoy and learn from this reading experience — and bond with the parents and guardians along the way. I strongly recommend that you use this book to do the same!

My other all-time favorite books that will excite and interest children in reading are “White Fang” by Jack London, “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls, “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, and “The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible: A Free Market Odyssey” by Ken Schoolland.

As you either know or will discover, both “White Fang” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” are stories about the lives of some dogs, and involve real-life problems, relationships with humans and other animals, unfairness, warmth, dedication, emotion and tears that will endure for a long time. “The Giver” and “The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible” involve simplified but not simplistic discussions about principles and choices that will help to confront young (and not-so-young) minds with the real world, and how we all can live our lives more fully and completely.

My librarian friend began her list by recommending that our children read any books by Chris Crutcher, Walter Dean Myers or Gary Paulsen. Then she listed some specific books, which were: “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers, “White Fox Chronicle” by Gary Paulsen, “Touching Spirit Bear” by Ben Mikaelsen, and “Stuck in Neutral” by Terry Trueman.

“Monster” is a story about a 16-year-old boy who is charged criminally with the offense of being a lookout while a murder was taking place. During his trial the boy chronicles the ongoing proceedings in his head in a movie script format, and thereby provides insights into his life before the murder and his feelings about being locked up. Whether he was involved in the murder or was simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time” is constantly on the reader’s mind. “White Fox Chronicle” describes a 14-year-old boy, aka “White Fox,” as he carries out an ingenious escape in the year 2057 from a prison camp run by evil and brutal outsiders who have taken over our country. Then the reader transfers the execution of his plan to liberate the remaining prisoners and punish the evildoers into a formula that gives hope and a chance for all downtrodden Americans to live more successful and productive lives.

“Touching Spirit Bear” tells the story of a teenage bully whose anger resulted in him beating up and severely injuring a ninth-grade classmate. But then a Tlingit Indian parole officer comes into his life and offers an alternative called “Circle Justice,” based upon Native American traditions, in which victim, offender and community all work together to find a healing resolution for what has happened.

With “Stuck in Neutral” we are exposed to a 14-year-old boy who has lost all of his muscle control from cerebral palsy, including the ability to walk, talk or even focus his eyes. Nevertheless, the gentle hugs from his mother, tasting of different foods, and things he thinks about in his head result in an inward happiness. But the boy becomes frantic when he determines that his father, who believes his son’s life is nothing but an endless torment, is thinking of killing him. And the boy has no way of telling his father that he is wrong.

What better way to encourage our young people to turn off the television than learning about the magical world of reading? Of course, many adults could also learn the same lesson. As a personal example, when the Los Angeles Rams moved away from Orange County, I stopped watching or even caring about professional football. The amount of time I saved by not watching these interminable games on television enabled me to write two books and a musical, and to be able to read lots of other books as well. So do the young people in your lives one of the biggest favors you can, and expose them to the wonders and benefits of reading. And I suggest to you that the books listed here are a good place to start.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical “Americans All” (Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted at or at his website at

Monday, January 12, 2009

Governing human conduct - By Judge Jim Gray

On my second day of retirement, I went to my son’s high school to speak to his government class about laws and our judicial system in general. And I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you.

If you think about it, there are many ways to make decisions and resolve disputes other than to take them to courts of law as we know them.

Throughout the history of the world, many if not most of the critically important disputes were resolved unilaterally by individual people such as monarchs, chieftains, or family patriarchs. Disputes have also been decided by wars, gunfights, brawls, duels, and other forms of violence; by chance, such as the flip of a coin, drawing of lots, cutting of cards, or roll of the dice; or by hiring a surrogate so that whoever’s knights or thugs or “boys from the ranch” joust or fight successfully against their opponents win the dispute.

Of course, leaving the settlement of disputes up to the leader, luck, or local hero of the day has resulted in many disputes being resolved in an extremely arbitrary manner. But at least those approaches provided the benefit of deciding the issues quickly, decisively, and, in most cases, finally. Still, it is hard to argue that “justice for all” was procured very often.

Another thing that most people do not focus upon is the difficulty of writing laws that address human conduct. Today’s life is often complicated and complex. In fact sometimes life simply is not always what it seems, as witnessed by the fact that once Charlie Chaplin entered a “Charlie Chaplin Look-a-like” contest — and came in third. So addressing and governing human conduct and obtaining reasonable results from our laws are not easily done.

For example, consider crafting a law about one of the more straightforward issues in our society: our system of traffic control signal lights. So I ask you to stop reading this right now, and try yourself to draft such a law — and have your children join you. It will be fun, and instructive.

Such a law would be simple, right? A red light means stop, and a green light means go.

But wait. What about a blinking red light? That would mean that a law-abiding driver could never leave the intersection! OK, so we will make a modification for blinking red lights to allow the driver to progress when it is safe after making a complete stop.

But wait again, what about emergency vehicles? If you are in a life-threatening situation and are being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, will you want the driver to wait patiently at every red light for it to change to green? Or for every fire truck on the way to a fire? Or the police on their way to a robbery in progress? OK, so we must again modify our laws to make allowances for emergency vehicles in emergency situations.

But only for emergency vehicles? How about a husband driving his wife to the hospital when she is delivering her baby unexpectedly right at that moment, or other emergency situations? Or what about the exception in some states, including California, in which motorists are permitted to turn right on a red light after they have come to a complete stop and it is safe to proceed? Woody Allen memorialized this exception in one of his movies by calling it one of California’s only contributions to modern society.

So once again it is hard to foresee every situation in which a modification to the general rule is appropriate and desired. In other words and as we said before, life can be complicated. That is actually one reason why most of the propositions on our ballots are cumbersome and often ill-conceived. Why? Because they have not been subject to much screening or review in which more appropriate and effective language could be hammered out by people who are trained and experienced in this important area. So when problems with these shortsighted propositions are discovered, it is usually left to the courts to attempt to reach a resolution that both makes sense and is constitutional — much to the consternation of many people, particularly if the subject is emotional!

It is also critically important that the rules not be changed without appropriate notice to everyone concerned. Consider, for example, a game of basketball in which the referees decide that since the underdog team had tried so hard and almost caught up to the favored team, they would extend the game by an extra three minutes to give the underdog more of a chance. Or consider a football game in which the referees decide not to enforce the rules so strictly against the smaller and slower team in an effort to make the game more equal. Things like this can rightfully bring disdain for a system and therefore decrease its effectiveness — in sports events, or in any other activity of life. Instead the system must be — and must be seen to be — fair and neutral for all in order to be effective.

So beside fair and well-conceived laws, we need a system of dispute resolution that people will be confident in and will also get the job done. This is the system that keeps us safe, enforces our rights against excessive government intrusion into our lives, and enforces our contracts. Without such a system, civilized and organized life would be far less possible.

We are blessed to have such a system in place, one that applies neutral judicial rules and procedures that are administered by impartial and independent judges and juries. This system has taken a long time to develop. But as a direct result of this development, the Rule of Law has become the foundation of our modern social order and has materially lessened the rule of force and despotic whim — for the good of us all! I hope you join me in appreciating it.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe — the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2009), and can be contacted at or at his website at

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Libertarian philosophy - by Judge Jim Gray

I was a lifelong Republican until I realized my party couldn’t be counted on. Not to protect my freedom or my liberty, and not to be “fiscally conservative.”

So I realized I could not be a part of an organization that did not reflect my values, or the values I believe this country is based upon.

Therefore, I decided to change parties. Where to go? Once I started to check out my options, it took me about two minutes to decide that I was a natural Libertarian.

Since that time many people have asked me what are the differences between Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. Well, using a little poetic license just to make a point, I will tell you.

Republicans basically act like your father. They will let you spend your own money, but they tell you what to do in your personal life. And if you don’t follow their directions, they will punish you.

Democrats, on the other hand, want to act as your mother. They want to keep most all of your money, but promise to take care of you and spend your money on things they think are good for you. And, of course, they will not trust you to make your own decisions. Why? Because “Mommy knows best.”

Libertarians are completely different. Libertarians treat adults as adults. Make your own decisions, but you are bound by the decisions you make. In other words, Libertarians think you are smarter than any politicians about how to run your financial and personal life.

When people first hear about Libertarian philosophy it seems unsettling. But when it comes down to it, the Libertarian philosophy works. Think about it. Had Libertarians been in control of our federal and/or state government for the last 10 years, we would not be in financial trouble today. Instead we would actually be prospering both economically and sociologically.

But putting attempts at humor aside, what is the Libertarian philosophy? It has its roots in the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson, John Locke and Adam Smith. Of course, it is hard to generalize about any group of people. But simply stated, Libertarians believe in freedom, the Rule of Law, limited government, self-defense and free markets. They also have a basic confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make wise decisions about their own lives.

As an example, Libertarians believe that parents are in a far better position than the government to decide where and how their children should be educated.

Think of it this way. Most of the important institutions in society developed without governmental involvement. Examples are the development of language, money and markets. That does not at all mean Libertarians believe “anything goes.”

To the contrary, Libertarians believe adults should make their own decisions and be free to act as they deem appropriate, but only as long as those acts do not interfere with the rights of others. As a result, Libertarians are actually quite law-and-order minded.

Regarding self-defense, Libertarians agree with Jefferson when he said that whoever beats his swords into plowshares will soon be plowing for somebody else.

But Libertarians rebel at attempts by government to legislate all risks out of existence. They also believe in the “forgotten” 9th and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which say that all rights not expressly given to the government by the Constitution are retained by the people.

This might sound like “egghead” talk, but it is important.

For example, nowhere in the Constitution by any stretch of the imagination does it say that government can control things like our healthcare system.

When I was growing up, we probably had the best healthcare system in the world.

Back then no one even raised the issue of not having access to good quality doctors, hospitals and medicines. Emergency Rooms were fully available as needed, and healthcare was reasonably priced. But then government began to take control, and look where it has taken us.

Libertarians understand the answer is not to have more government involvement, it is instead to limit government as much as possible.

In fact, Libertarians will tell you that if you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it’s “free.”

To bring that point home even further, today there are two areas of medicine where we can still obtain top quality healthcare at reasonable and competitive prices. What are they? Cosmetic surgery and Lasik eye surgery. Everywhere you look you can see ads for these treatments at low prices, easy payments and many other nice benefits. Why? Because they are not controlled by government or insurance. These are places where the free market and individual choice are still in control.

Libertarians know we can reclaim what was once the best healthcare system in the world by bringing back that same free market choice.

Another program that has completely failed, especially for the poor, is our government’s welfare system. Government has trapped the poor on both sides with its bad policies.

On the one hand, minimum wage laws and licensing requirements make it harder for the poor to find that all-important first job.

On the other, it makes not working much more attractive by paying people not to work! (Then government looks at the problems it has created and naturally decides to do more and more of what has been shown not to work.)

In summary, Libertarians understand that a system of market incentives works better. Libertarians do not want to abandon people who are poor, downtrodden and disabled. But they want government “solutions” to be a last resort, instead of the first.

So I hope this has piqued your interest in America’s largest third party. If you would like to give it more thought, I recommend you read a book by David Boaz entitled “Libertarianism: A Primer” (The Free Press, 1997).

And about my new political party?

I believe the more you think about it, the more you will be favorably impressed.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2009), and can be contacted at or through his website at