Saturday, December 7

Tom Glavine

Clearly, Mets fans think alike: when I heard that the Mets had signed free-agent pitcher Tom Glavine, my thoughts, like Eric McErlain's, were, (1) what do the Braves know that the Mets don't, and (2) watch Glavine get hit by a bus on his next visit to Manhattan.

I have mixed feelings about the signing. Glavine has been a fantastic pitcher, but he'll be 37 years old on opening day. And while a number of pitchers have turned in jaw-dropping performances in their late 30s in recent years—Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens—these are far and away the exceptions rather than the rule. At some point, every athlete's performance declines because of age, and sometimes the decline is quite abrupt. The Mets already have tens of millions of dollars tied up in long-term contracts for aging veterans; committing over $30 million to Glavine over the next three years further limits their already limited flexibility.

Add to that the fact that signing Glavine does nothing to address the Mets' most glaring weaknesses last year, which were hitting and fielding, not starting pitching. And signing Glavine to a big contract makes it that much more likely that the Mets will say goodbye to third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, a Met mainstay since the mid-1990s and one of the few everyday players who didn't underachieve last season. Alfonzo had back problems in 2001, which is always worrying, and he wants a significant increase in pay from the six-plus million he earned last season. But he's also only 28 on a team overloaded with players 34 and older, he's a team player who willingly moved from second base to third to make room for Roberto Alomar, and aside from Mike Piazza he's been the Mets' most consistent offensive threat. Letting him go will be a real loss.

That said, signing Glavine was important. Not only does it strengthen the Mets' rotation, it also weakens the Braves and halts the momentum of the upstart Phillies. And the signing gives Mets fans at least some reason to hope that 2003 won't be a repeat of the dismal 2002 season.

A note to Jessica: as someone who saw his boyhood idol, Tom Seaver, leave the Mets not once but twice, I feel for you. I really do. In a just world, Tom Glavine would have ended his career as a Brave. It should go without saying, though, that Major League Baseball is not now, and never has been, a just world.

Friday, December 6

Milestone

Congratulations to Eric McErlain, whose superb sports blog Off-Wing Opinion had its 20.000th visitor today.

Exam Memories

Amy Kropp (who has moved her site off Blogspot) saw my post yesterday wishing law students luck on their exams and flashed back to her own first-year Civil Procedure exam at IU School of Law—Indianapolis (before my arrival). The experience she describes is a common one for first-year law students. For me, it came in my spring Con Law final, in which I was so paralyzed by confusion that I wrote not a single word for the first 75 minutes of the four-hour exam. I left the exam convinced that the first semester had been a fluke, and that I was a miserable failure as a law student. And while, unlike Amy, I did not receive the highest score in the class, I did wind up receiving the highest grade I reasonably could have hoped for under the grading system in place at that time.

So, first-years, follow Amy's advice. Study hard, and when your exams are over, don't despair (and don't exult); just enjoy your holiday break.

More Judicial Activism

Many progressives are celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to accept certiorari in Lawrence v. Texas, the Texas sodomy case, hoping that the Court will either reverse or narrow its previous holding in the notorious and widely criticized case of Bowers v. Hardwick. Nathan Newman, though, has reservations. He fears that a Supreme Court decision invalidating the Texas anti-sodomy statute, a decision that he says would be judicial activism, would produce a cultural conservative backlash that ultimately would reverse momentum toward gay rights. More generally, he contends that progressives err by relying on antimajoritarian judicial decisions rather than creating legislative majorities. Judicial activism, he concludes, ultimately offers false hope and false solutions.

There's certainly something to Nathan's argument. Judicial decisions that remove controversial issues from the political realm have a clear potential to produce significant resentment among those who favor the invalidated legislation. You don't need to look any further back than the Ninth Circuit's Pledge of Allegiance decision last June, which provoked an immediate popular and legislative backlash. Beyond that, Nathan is correct, I think, to suggest that Roe v. Wade has turned out to be more of a mixed blessing than the pro-choice community probably expected three decades ago.

That said, I have a couple of problems with Nathan's argument. For one, it relies on an exceptionally fuzzy and ill-defined conception of judicial activism. I've written several posts offering alternative formulations of the concept in the past (see here and here, for example), so it's something I've spent some time thinking about, but I'm still not sure exactly what Nathan means. It can't simply be the concept of judicial review of statutory law. That concept is sufficiently well established in our national jurisprudence that it's inappropriate to apply to it a pejorative term like judicial activism. To the criticism that such review is antimajoritarian, the simple answer is that many features of our constitutional system, not simply this one, are antimajoritarian. Madison and most of the other framers had a profound distrust of unchecked majorities, based in part on the experience under the Articles of Confederation during the 1780s.

It may be that Nathan's view of judicial activism involves a substantial component of respect for precedent, the notion being that a decision that charts a new course despite the existence of prior Supreme Court precedent constitutes activism. If so, though, a decision reversing the conviction in Lawrence v. Texas would not, in my view, constitute a particularly alarming instance of activism. Bowers v. Hardwick hardly has a long and distinguished history, after all. It was decided by a vote of 5-4, and one member of the majority subsequently expressed regret over his vote. The decision has been sharply criticized from both the left and the libertarian wing of the right. Overruling it would not remove or reshape one of the pillars of American constitutional law.

(The same could be said, incidentally, of Bakke, the Supreme Court's prior ruling on affirmative action in higher education admissions. The Bakke Court was sharply divided on both result and rationale; the consititutional principles that emerged from the decision are hardly as firmly rooted in American jurisprudence as are, say, those from the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education.)

It's also apparently not simply a matter of invalidating legislation. As far as I've been able to determine, the affirmative action policies at issue in the two University of Michigan cases are not based on any particular act of the Michigan legislature. While the legislature no doubt could adopt legislation that would invalidate the policies as a matter of statutory law rather than constitutional law, a decision invalidating those policies would not tread directly on legislative toes. Yet Nathan suggests that a decision invalidating the affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan would constitute judicial activism as well.

I think that what Nathan means when he refers to judicial activism is achievement through judicial innovation of an end that could not be achieved by legislative means. Such action undoubtedly has antimajoritarian elements and has potential to arouse a popular backlash. But Lawrence isn't necessarily such a case. Many of the state anti-sodomy laws still on the books (whether this applies to the Texas law or not, I don't know) are decades if not centuries old, and society has changed significantly in the meantime. The extent to which the statutes reflect present majority preferences is thus questionable. What's more, even if a majority of voters would favor overturning the statute if the question were put to them, the significant procedural hurdles to passing new legislation mean that the legislative branch is heavily weighted toward maintenance of the status quo. Judicial review of such a statute, then, does not necessarily trample on present majority preferences. This doesn't mean that judges should rush to declare such statutes void as a matter of constitutional law, of course. But where an antiquated statute treads into the gray areas of constitutional doctrine, the antimajoritarian concern is at least lessened.

(Judge Guido Calabresi of the Second Circuit, for whom I clerked, wrote at length before taking the bench about possible ways that judges might deal with obsolete or obsolescent statutes short of affirmance—which would leave the obsolete status quo intact—or reversal on constitutional grounds—which would remove the issue altogether from the political sphere. The argument (and the subsequent academic debate that it provoked) is too involved to reproduce here. For those interested in the subject, though, I highly recommend the book, A Common Law for the Age of Statutes.)

I also think that the circumstances in which a case arises are relevant. Lawrence, for example, is not a declaratory judgment action—it's not brought by people who want to engage prospectively in currently-prohibited action and who choose to pursue a judicial rather than a legislative remedy. The petitioners in Lawrence now have criminal convictions that they would like to see reversed; any new legislation would come too late for them. While gay and lesbian groups are supporting their efforts, the petitioners did not pick this fight; the State of Texas did when it chose to prosecute them. It's unrealistic to expect them to sacrifice their rights, which they reasonably believe have already been violated in a distinct and otherwise-irremediable way, for fear of uncertain future consequences. What's more, as Nathan recognizes, this case involves an equal protection element that Bowers lacked, in that unlike Georgia's now-repealed statute, the Texas statute in question distinguishes homosexual sodomy from heterosexual sodomy and criminalizes only the former. We're not necessarily dealing, in other words, with a direct challenge to a firmly established constitutional principle.

Nathan is right to question whether using litigation to pursue goals that properly belong in the legislative realm causes more harm than good. And judges who set forth particularly bold and unprecedented constitutional doctrines run the risk of damaging the institutional integrity not just of the legislature but also of the judiciary. Ultimately, though, Nathan goes too far in his criticism of the Court's decision to hear Lawrence, not only because he overestimates (in my opinion) the amount of judicial innovation that reversal would require, but also because he underestimates the role that litigation can have in shaping public attitudes. For example, Nathan suggests that Brown v. Board of Education did not constitute improper judicial activism because it was part of a rising civil rights tide, one that could not produce a legislative remedy only because of the procedural peculiarities of the United States Senate. Even if this reading of history is correct, it's important to remember that Brown did not emerge from a legal vacuum; rather, it was the culmination of decades of legal efforts by the NAACP to challenge segregation at different levels of education. Those earlier cases played a vital role in demonstrating, in legal terms, the emptiness of Plessy v. Ferguson's separate-but-equal doctrine. But they also played a role—not a decisive role, perhaps, but a role nonetheless, in changing broader public attitudes toward segregation and civil rights. It's worth remembering that as we contemplate the possible ramifications of the Court's decision to hear Lawrence.

(Sam Heldman also responded to Nathan; his post can be found here.)

Thursday, December 5

This Is Tax Policy?

A quick note, and then I have to finish my class prep (I'll have something longer this afternoon or this evening).

There's been some discussion in the last couple of days of tax cut alternatives that the Democrats might offer to those in the Bush plan. At the moment, the favored idea seems to be a cut in the payroll tax, which, as the most regressive tax in the federal system, has a significant impact on lower- and middle-income Americans. Giving a tax cut to that portion of the population (which is likely to spend it and thus to give the economy a boost) might well make more sense than directing the bulk of the tax cut to the wealthiest Americans, as the Bush plan does.

But Stuart Buck raises an interesting question. Stuart first quotes from The New Republic's &c.:

But it seems like Democrats would be on pretty firm ground responding, "We want tax cuts to help the economy now, but we also want a long-term balanced budget that will protect Social Security and Medicare. They want tax cuts for rich people that will blow a hole in the budget and short-change Social Security and Medicare."

Which leads Stuart to wonder:

Tell me again how it is that a Republican income tax cut will "short-change Social Security and Medicare," while a Democratic cut in the very tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare will serve to "protect Social Security and Medicare." Maybe there's some explanation for that leap of logic, but it doesn't appear obvious to me.

I'm no economist, and the answer may well lie in other portions of the Kerry proposal (which I assume would provide a smaller overall package of cuts than the Bush plan). But Stuart's question is the kind of thing that immediately smacks you on the head—in addition to pointing out an apparent weakness, it makes a great talking point—and if there is a good answer, it had better be a great talking point, too, or this proposal is dead in the water.

Exam Time

As I prepare for my final class of the semester, I want to wish all of the law-student bloggers on my blogroll (and all other law students, too) good luck on their final exams.

May you suffer few random attacks of panic. And may your professors be nicer to you than I plan to be to mine (wicked cackle of sadistic glee).

Kidding about that last part. Really.

Wednesday, December 4

Ram On

Stuart Banner of The Volokh Conspiracy offers a nice appreciation of the St. Louis Rams' offense as it existed from 1999 through late 2001, before the wheels came off. NFL football involves too much brutality to offer much in the way of consistent grace, but at its best the St. Louis offense really was a beautiful thing to watch.

More on Democrats, Patriotism, and Hope

R. Alex Whitlock (whose blog, RAWbservations, has returned on schedule from a monthlong hiatus), emailed some thoughtful comments about my Monday post on defense, patriotism, and the Democratic party. One comment in particular merits a response, because I think it underscores that the Democrats' difficulty rests largely with their messengers. Alex writes that, during the summer months when the debate over Iraq first took shape, the Democrats' principal response to the hawks within the administration was, "We should ask the UN for permission."

I don't know that the leadership really grasped what that was, in effect, saying.

When one side says "we're big enough to make our own decisions" and the other side says "let's get permission" it's not difficult to determine who is going to come out with winner in the patriotism game. That wasn't the way they approached it. Prominent Democrats instead said "I oppose unilateral action", meaning they were with the UN on the issue, not the US. Oppose it or not, say that it's right for America or not, but saying you want to leave it to the UN is about the worst thing you can do. It doesn't show leadership, it's not popular, and it creates the air of siding against the US. Since there are elements of the left that do not think the US can take care of itself, it links them quite unfavorably.

Alex has a point here, insofar as it relates to how the Democrats' message was perceived. And there probably are some Democrats who meant the argument the way Alex characterizes it. But certainly not all.

I'm one of those who favored working through the UN (and so I'm content with how things have played out so far). But my reason for favoring action through the UN isn't that I think America should surrender its leadership, or its sovereignty, to an international body. I don't believe in one-world government any more than do the black helicopter crowd. I favored (and continue to favor) working through the UN because doing so, in my view, advances America's interests more effectively than going it alone (or acting with a small handful of allies in the face of widespread international opposition). Terrorism is an international phenomenon, and battling it effectively requires international cooperation. Significant strides have been made against Al Qaeda—certainly not enough to cripple the organization, not enough to eliminate the terrorist threat, not enough to allow us to declare victory, but significant strides nonetheless. And these have been achieved with international assistance. It would be nice if that assistance were stronger, more widespread, and more consistent. But it has been valuable. And much of that cooperation threatened to evaporate if we pursued a policy of regime change in Iraq in the face of international opposition.

The reason to work with the UN on Iraq, in other words, was and is that doing so would help America to strike back at Al Qaeda, the entity that actually attacked us. And if we can also contain or eliminate Saddam by working through the UN, so much the better. That's not an argument that's soft on defense. It's an argument that, I think, is easily comprehended. It's an argument that underlay much (though not all) of the Democrats' opposition to the administration hawks during the summer. But it is an argument that was communicated poorly at best.

Armed Liberal has also replied to my Monday post. He accepts my disaggregation of patriotism as love of country from patriotism as favoring strong national defense. He goes on, however, to criticize the patriotism (in either sense) of some on the left who are highly critical of America, likening them to abusive, hypercritical parents whose protestations of love ring hollow in light of their actions. To which I reply: eep. Okay, I acknowledge that there are some on the left who fit A.L.'s description; as an academic I certainly see them. But I really think they're a tiny minority (Alex's email to me suggests that he thinks they are about one percent of Democrats). I also think, though, that that tiny minority receives disproportionate attention, in part because it's in conservatives' interest to highlight their views, and in part because of the leadership void within the Democratic party.

A.L. is right that it's essential for Democrats to set forth a message of hope, to lay out a positive alternative vision rather than simply to criticize the actions of the present Republican majority. Americans are, by and large, an optimistic people, and too much of the Democrats' message in the past two years has consisted, in essence, of sour grumbling. That's not appealing. But this can be turned around, if only the proper voices can be found. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy said (in a remark that I've seen quoted on someone's blog in the last two days, a blog that unfortunately I can't find now):

I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man's ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.

I believe also in the United States of America, in the promise that it contains and has contained throughout our history of producing a society so abundant and creative and so free and responsible that it cannot only fulfill the aspirations of its citizens, but serve equally well as a beacon for all mankind. I do not believe in a superstate. I see no magic in tax dollars which are sent to Washington and then returned. I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies in this administration as well as in others. I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and full responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it. And this requires not only great ends but that we propose concrete means of achieving them.

Our responsibility is not discharged by announcement of virtuous ends. Our responsibility is to achieve these objectives with social invention, with political skill, and executive vigor. I believe for these reasons that liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them. Only liberalism, in short, can repair our national power, restore our national purpose, and liberate our national energies.

That is the underlying basis of what the Democrats should be saying now. Who will step forward?

(I can hear Rob Lyman whispering, "Where's the beef?" It's coming, I promise—I'm busy these days).

UPDATE: The JFK quote was on Jason Rylander's blog yesterday; that's where I saw it.

Tuesday, December 3

Getting the Job

Following my Evidence class (the next-to-last class meeting of the semester), I'll spend the late afternoon hours in this year's meeting to consider faculty hiring. This is rarely an enjoyable experience. Few things that we do have a greater impact on the future direction of the school than do decisions about who should be added to the faculty. And while we are fortunate to have a remarkably collegial faculty, it's inevitable that there are a number of competing visions for what the school's top priorities should be. As a result, these meetings tend to be testy affairs even under the best of circumstances.

Beyond that, though, the meetings are also a profoundly humbling experience. Each candidate is subject to exacting scrutiny, and much of that scrutiny relates to how the candidate performed in the pressure-cooker of a one-day on-campus interview. Each faculty member then has to reach a conclusion based on her or his assessment of the candidate's promise and personality in light of the individual faculty member's vision of the school's needs. Every year, I come away from the process amazed that I was ever offered a job.

This isn't false modesty. I had a very strong paper record when I was hired, with stellar academic credentials, good clerkships, some interesting work experience beyond my relatively brief tenure at a large D.C. law firm, and some evidence of promise as a scholar. But every candidate that we consider has a very strong paper record. Being a law professor is a highly desirable job—it allows the contemplation of interesting questions on a fairly relaxed schedule, without the annoyances of Friday afternoon calls from pesky clients, and the financial compensation is sufficient to allow a comfortable (though not extravagant) lifestyle. Each year, the number of candidates for law faculty positions vastly exceeds the number of positions available. As a result, faculties are able to set very high standards even for initial consideration. From there, a further winnowing occurs at the "meat market" in late October or early November, and a few lucky souls proceed to the on-campus visit. So much depends on how the candidate presents herself or himself during the interviewing process, and I'll be the first to say that interviews are not my strong suit. Having seen what hiring meeting discussions are like, I shudder to contemplate what must have been said about me.

The year I was hired, I was the only addition to the tenure-track faculty. I happen to know that I was not the faculty's first choice. I like to think that I was nevertheless a good choice. But every year at this time I am reminded of what a near thing it was, and how fortunate I am to have this job that I love so much.

Monday, December 2

Rethinking Democratic Patriotism

As Armed Liberal continues his probe into the cultural divide between "red" and "blue" America and the ramifications of that divide for the Democratic party, it seems appropriate to revisit a disagreement I had with him awhile back. In the wake of the disappointing November 5 election results, reflecting on the Democrats' inability to connect with the voters despite a weak economy and an uncertain international situation, A.L. posited a first principle for any Democratic revival:

First, you have to love America.

And, a bit further on, he added:

And for everyone who is going to comment and remind me that ‘all liberals already do that’…no they don’t.

That last bit set me off, and I responded:

It seems to me that A.L. here repeats the right-wing calumny (so frequently heard from the warbloggers) that liberals (or at least a substantial number of liberals) hate America. And, frankly, I'm sick of hearing that. It's bad enough coming from the political opposition; reading it from someone who's supposed to be a political ally makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

I know a lot of Democrats, in Indiana and in my old stomping grounds up and down the Northeast Corridor. Most of them consider themselves liberals. And every single one of them loves this country. They don't think it's perfect, they believe that it can be made better, but they are patriots, and they have fire and loathing for those behind the September 11 attacks.

In reply, A.L. wrote:

Every day, I read the L.A. Times, the Daily Breeze, and the Wall Street Journal cover to cover. I read CNN.com and all the blogs on my blogroll pretty much daily (all the ones with *’s every day, and many others); I probably spend an hour or so a day reading. I subscribe to The Atlantic, Harper’s, Granta, and Scientific American, along with a bunch of business, technology, and motorcycle magazines, and I read them all as soon as I get them. I pick up The Economist every other month.

I don’t say this to make myself out as some kind of font of knowledge, but to say both that I’ve got some direct knowledge and that I’m a pretty voracious media consumer (with the exception of TV and talk radio), and I’ll tell you now that when I think of Democratic patriotism, I still somehow can’t get the image of Michael Dukakis sitting in a M-1 Abrams out of my mind.

The 'brand impression' that I have of the Democratic Party includes many things; it includes compassion, justice, equality…but it doesn’t include patriotism.

This exchange has continued to gnaw away at my brain for the past couple of weeks. But, while it took me awhile, I've finally concluded that A.L. and I were really talking about different (though related) things: love of country, and defense policy. When I see someone suggesting that liberals don't love America, I tend to read it as an assertion that most liberals believe the world would be a better place if America did not exist. And that's rubbish. There may be a fringe element in the left that views the United States as a net evil in the world, but that's all it is, a fringe.

A.L., I think, meant something slightly different. I now read him as saying, in essence: if you love America, you must be willing to defend it against attacks from abroad. And, he suggests, Democrats have been weak in their support of defense.

This is a better-grounded argument than the one I originally thought he was making. I know some Democrats, for example, who have strong pacifist tendencies based on their religious beliefs. They love their country, but, based on their beliefs, they are reluctant to see America use military force. There also remains in the Democratic party an anti-military strain, in large measure a holdover from the misadventure of the Vietnam War. To the extent that these elements within the party affect public perception, it should not be at all surprising that independent voters would turn away from the party in the wake of a foreign attack.

But there's no real question that, especially since September 11, the Democratic leadership stands strongly in favor of protecting American soil and American lives, and of striking back against those who threaten them. The problem, once again, isn't so much the message as the messengers. As A.L. suggests, it all goes back to Dukakis and that damn tank.

What the Democrats need, in short, is someone who is able, in convincing fashion, to frame the debate in terms of priorities, rather than in terms of defense or no defense. For too long, the Republicans have been able to paint Democratic opposition to particular policies—individual weapons systems, say, or missile defense—as evidence of Democratic weakness on defense. The two are not the same thing. It is perfectly plausible to believe, for example, that missile defense is a bad idea—expensive, unlikely to be effective, and dangerous as a matter of international relations—while remaining committed to a strong national defense. Similarly, it's perfectly plausible, in the wake of September 11, to believe that the pursuit and destruction of Al Qaeda should be a higher priority than dethroning Saddam Hussein. But the Democrats' efforts to convey these messages have been pathetic.

There are plenty of grounds for criticizing the Bush administration's approach to defense in the post-September 11 world. And, as Matthew Yglesias argues, that criticism need not come from Bush's right:

We should say we're going to his left. Combatting religious fundamentalism, promoting democracy, and committing America's wealth and power to the betterment of the world are liberal goals in perfectly good standing, and it's time to start re-adopting them. The recent flap over Saudi Arabia and the now-brewing one over Henry Kissinger are excellent examples — there's one political party in this country badly in hock to the Islamism-loving oil industry, and it's not the Democrats. It's time for us to start acting like it.

But who will make the case? Where is the assertive voice that will explain, in consistent and coherent fashion, an alternative vision for protecting and advancing American interests in the world? At this point, I don't see such a person. And until one emerges, the Democrats will remain in serious trouble.

Supreme Court This Week

Sam Heldman has previews of all the Supreme Court cases to be argued this week, including a solid analysis of Chavez v. Martinez, the civil rights case implicating Miranda about which I wrote briefly last week.

Sunday, December 1

Wines of the Week
Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2002
Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Nouveau Primeur 2002

Every year at about this time, I venture out to a local wine shop to taste the vintage's Beaujolais Nouveau. I do this for the fun of tasting a wine fresh from fermentation, made from grapes that were still hanging on the vine in early September. For me, it's part of the late fall harvest ritual that surrounds Thanksgiving. And by tasting in a shop, I can sample the wines without having to pay for them. After all, it's not as though they're actually any good.

This year, the 21st Amendment Wine Gallery was pouring Nouveau from the large Burgundy producer Joseph Drouhin and from self-proclaimed king of Beaujolais Georges Duboeuf. Duboeuf's Nouveau frequently shows chemical and other odd notes, signs of the manipulation necessary to get the wine from vine to bottle to market in a little over two months. Last year's was an exception, as we were pleased to discover when we opened a bottle of the baby wine to celebrate Noah's arrival. But this year's is an unfortunate return to form. The grapy aroma has strong bubble gum notes, and bubble gum dominates the flavors as well—at least until an off-putting bitterness kicks in on the finish. Avoid.

The Drouhin is notably better. The aroma still has a bit of bubblegum to go with the raspberries and grapes, but the flavors are better balanced, with not-quite-ripe raspberries on the midpalate, the faintest hint of spice for interest, and a finishing flavor resembling strawberry yogurt. This is a passable wine, and those who must have a 2002 Nouveau will find the Drouhin a good choice. But it's still thin, acidic stuff, without much charm or quality.

Beaujolais Nouveau isn't expensive—the Duboeuf and the Drouhin are each eight dollars or so. But even at that relatively low price point, it's possible to do much better, even without leaving Beaujolais. At the same shop where I tasted these wines, Duboeuf's 2001 Beaujolais-Villages—a better wine, but lacking the Nouveau's marketing cachet—is available for two dollars less than the Nouveau, while the 2001 Jean Descombes Morgon—a vastly superior wine from one of the best small producers in Duboeuf's stable—is only a dollar more. My advice, then, is to taste the Beaujolais Nouveau in a shop, but otherwise leave it on the shelf. If you feel obliged to buy something from the merchant that provided the tasting, make it something better.