When they throw good money after bad
This is a story about judges, common folk and gamblers; in a descending order of intellect. It’s about America; but we, too, have laws of similar ilk. So, rather than clamour about changing them, why not sit back and enjoy the fun? Illinois, Obama country, has a law on gambling, something that was frowned upon a long time ago. As with all legal fiction, a limit of $50 was imposed as the Laxmanrekha. To win over that amount meant that the winner had to return the balance to the loser. So, at any given time, no one, literally, lost his shirt.
Times change. ‘Online Everything’ is the world today. Gambling is big business on the Internet, though we have never met anyone who claims to have made a profit, virtual or otherwise, by banging away at a keyboard.
Two men, Sonnenberg and Farhner, went a-gambling on the Net. They lost money. They bet again. Lost more. Repeat show. Bottomless pit. And on it went. Gambling ‘fools’ do not stop. But they had ingenious mothers who knew the law. They sued the online gamer. “Take the $50 and give us the balance.”
You be the judge. Would you order the refund?
In law, there is, what is known as, equity. Not to be confused with equality. Common law, common sense, and equity make the judiciary greater, beyond the texts. America has a violent birth and it was guns and horses that made it what it is today. The old cowboys had a word for plain thinking. ‘Hoss-sense’. Fortunately, a lot of contemporary American judges display that. Richard Posner, about whom we have written before, is one such person who looks beyond the hidebound, to deliver path-breaking judgements.
Imagine the horse-racing tracks in Illinois. Punters would line up at the end of the day, claiming all but $50 of their daily horse-feed. The question, thankfully yet unanswered, would be, does the $50 rule apply? And to every race, or the day’s total?
To compound the court’s dilemma, the law allowed a third person to claim on behalf of the loser. In stepped mothers Sonnenberg and Farhner. To be sure, we, too, have such a provision, where a best friend can step into the shoes of a victim and approach the courts. A very helpful idea, especially when the victim is unable to seek the remedy himself.
The Illinois law, as it stands, states that anyone, “knowingly establishes, maintains, or operates an Internet site that permits a person to play a game of chance or skill for money or other thing of value by means of the Internet or to make a wager upon the result of any [such] game.” It also punishes “any person who knowingly permits any premises or property owned or occupied by him or under his control to be used as a gambling place.” Shades of 1887. WOW.
More wow. The law states that if the gamblers could not claim within six months, their mothers could claim thrice the amount! There has to be some ‘logic in this madness’, but we will not tax our noggins on that right now. Suffice it to say that the courts owed one to the public, to set the conundrum straight.
More issues surfaced. Action could be brought against a ‘person’ who had won. But a gaming site was not a person. A person may induce another to gamble away his soul. A contraption, like a slot machine, cannot. A person-gambler takes away all. A site allows a gambler to put his cash in a kitty, takes its share and leaves the rest to some program.
Finally, in appeal, with the mothers crying for their sons, Justice Posner, for the three-judge bench, found for the respondents. The mothers’ (and the sons’) appeal was dismissed. Thank God!
Some laws seem crazy. About the best-in-class is one that says that a person cannot carry an ice-cream cone in his trouser pocket. One man did. With mod jeans, even a comb cannot slide in; but our victim had the space. As he turned around, a horse bit off the top of the cone and a bit of a bottom. “Hence,” as they say in legalese, “the law.”
Remember Steve McQueen, in The Magnificent Seven, with his, “It looked like a good idea at the time?”