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We live in a brave new world where our technology has outstripped our traditional attitudes and expectations. The law has struggled to keep up. Two recent news items encapsulate the current struggle. One concerns an individual’s legal rights to protect his beliefs against technology and the other our inability to keep up with those who may be using the speed of technology to rig our financial institutions.

Beverly Butcher, Jr. arguably has one of the toughest job in America. He is a West Virginia coal miner and has been for 35 years. This working man is also an Evangelical Christian. So when Beverly’s company began to require employees to use a biometric hand scanner, he had a religious objection to what he considered to be the “mark of the beast.” His company’s refusal to allow him an alternative method to clock-in has generated an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) law suit against his employer, Consul Energy. The Reuters new service had more details:

Consul, with headquarters in Western Pennsylvania, was accused of discriminating against Butcher, who repeatedly told mining officials that using the scanner violated his Evangelical Christian beliefs, given his view of the relationship between hand-scanning technology and the mark of the beast in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, the lawsuit said . . .

Though alternatives to hand scans were found for two employees with missing fingers, the EEOC claims Butcher was forced into early retirement because no provision was made for him . . .

EEOC District Director Spencer Lewis, Jr. said the company violated Butcher’s civil rights when “they obstinately refused to consider easy alternatives to their new hand-scanning time and attendance system to accommodate Mr. Butcher’s religious beliefs.”

Butcher is not alone in his beliefs concerning hand scanning technology, so religious challenges to technology are only going to increase as the technology becomes more wide spread in use. How the law will deal with the clash of religious beliefs and hi-tech is not clear and all this exposes an age-old tension between benefits to society and the rights of the individual. Humanity has been dealing with that theme since Sophocles penned Antigone 2,400 years ago and in that ongoing debate the founders of this country, through the Bill of Rights, opted to give individual rights primacy of place.

While Beverly Butcher’s story is about millennial old beliefs, another story of interest turns on milliseconds. Unlike the debate about the individual’s conscience rights in relation to societal duties, there aren’t any Greek tragedies about milliseconds. But thankfully there is an Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd comedy that can partially guide us through the world of insider trading.

If you’ve ever seen the 1983 John Landis comedy Trading Places which lampoons the elites of the financial sector then you know that there are millions (billions?) of dollars to be made if  traders (stocks, bonds, commodities, etc.) can get inside government information and make a trade before the information becomes public. In the movie the secret at issue was a government report on orange crops; in real life if was the information that the Federal Reserve would would “not be tapering its bond buying program.” In the movie the agricultural report in stolen by the good guys on a madcap New Year’s train ride featuring now-Senator Al Franken as a stoned train attendant. In real life, the Fed released the information at precisely 2 pm EDT (as set by the national atomic clock). The Fed’s announcement took seven milliseconds to get from Washington, DC to Chicago, meaning it arrived in Chicago at  2:00.007 pm. Yet between 2:00.002 and 2:00.003 pm, major orders were placed in Chicago seemingly based on the Fed’s announcement that wouldn’t arrive for another 4-5 milliseconds. No one seems to know how this happened and the Fed won’t say whether it thinks any of its rules were broken. How do regulators, prosecutors, citizen watch-dog groups, or lawyers looking out for the best interests of their clients even go about determining if something illegal happened and the system got jobbed by insider traders? (Perhaps Senator Franken can launch an investigation as he should at least understands the premise of the scam.) The technology-laden world we live in has become a perpetual “bang-bang” play at first base and most of us fair no better than Don Denkinger.

No one can argue that our society, our laws and even our brains are having trouble keeping up. So if Moore’s Law, which states that there is an exponential doubling of technology every two years, is true then can we ever hope to catch up or even keep up? And if you think the law is struggling now, what if the  human chimera arrives as predicted.

This is not your grand-daddy’s law practice.





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