Tuesday, March 30, 2010
He has to pay WHAT?
W. Charles Bailey Jr., a Baltimore attorney who says that this blog is one of his favorite diversions, has found what he thinks is an error in an Associated Press article, and with it, he raises a question about editing.
He has given me permission to quote at length from his note:
Mr. Bailey: I have a copy editor question that may actually be a topic for your blog. It seems to be a classic example of a lack of good copy editing.
I opened my NY Times browser I and found the following AP Article:
Maryland: Dead Marine 's Father Must Pay Protestor
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 29, 2010
Lawyers for the father of a Marine who died in Iraq say a court has ordered him to pay legal costs for the anti-gay protesters who picketed his son’s funeral. The protesters are led by Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa., had won a $5 million verdict against Mr. Phelps, but it was thrown out on appeal. On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Maryland, ordered Mr. Snyder to pay the costs of Mr. Phelps’s appeal. The United States Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to consider whether the protesters’ provocative messages, which include phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” are protected by the First Amendment. Members of the church maintain that God hates homosexuality and that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is God’s way of punishing the United States for its tolerance of it.
Reading the article, I was left with the understanding that the Court ordered the deceased Marine's Father to pay the legal fees of that despicable organization that pickets soldiers' funerals. As a lawyer, I was stunned, because the American rule is that legal fees are not paid by the losing side. The only time the rule is set aside is when there is some statutory exception mandating a fee shift.
I suspected that the AP was mistaking "legal fees" with "costs" associated with an appeal. Specifically, I suspected that the Court did not order the Marine's father to pay legal fees, but only ordered him to pay under a standard procedure that taxes the costs of photocopies to the losing party. This is found in Federal Rule of Civil procedure 39, and applies in every case. Suffice it to say, though, that the cost of copies, while expensive, are not the same thing as "legal costs" such as attorneys' fees in litigating an appeal.
I looked up the opinion and, sure enough, the only thing that was assessed was the usual copy fees. In other words, this was what happens in every case.
So, my question is whether or not this is the sort of thing that a good copy editor should catch? It certainly would be news if the court had assessed legal fees. That's why I took the time to go and look up the case. That didn't happen, though. Instead, the Court just applied the rules that have applied to all appeals for a long, long, time.
So is this a blunder or what?
My response: There certainly appears to be sloppiness in the Associated Press reports. One dated March 29 referred to an order “to pay the protesters’ appeal costs,” and one dated March 30 to an order “to pay legal costs.” Both stories were posted on The New York Times’s Web site, and the language appears in numerous other news sites.
I too thought that the order was to pay the legal fees. Had the article referred to an order to pay “court costs,” I would have assumed that it meant expenses such as filing fees and photocopying of documents, rather than attorney fees.
This is precisely the sort of distinction that a sharp-eyed copy editor might have made, and a well-timed question could have led to a call to the AP for a clarification, which the AP could have in turn sent out to subscribers. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer copy editors in the business, and those who remain have less and less time and encouragement to raise necessary questions.