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WHEN THE jury recommended that Scott Peterson get the death penalty for murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son, it was widely noted that there is little chance of the death sentence actually being carried out. California's chief justice, Ronald George, acknowledged that an appeals process that is "in many ways dysfunctional" will keep Peterson alive for decades to come.

"We don't turn them out like Texas, and I'm glad that we don't," George told reporters. "The leading cause of death on [California's] death row is old age."

But no chief justice should be glad that the judicial system he presides over cannot do its job. California has 641 murderers on death row, yet it has executed only 10 people since 1992. That is a travesty -- no less so than if hundreds of killers sentenced to life were routinely released after only a few months behind bars.

Yes, convicts are entitled to an appellate review. But there is no excuse for turning a murderer's right of appeal into a de facto commutation of his death sentence. Peterson's jury recommended death after hearing the witnesses, weighing the evidence, and deliberating for 11 1/2 hours. Its judgment ought to be respected, not mocked by a "dysfunctional" system that undermines the very law it was created to uphold.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney described education reform the other day as "the great civil rights issue of this century." That is shorthand for the appalling racial gap in learning, whereby the average black high school graduate reads and writes at the level of the average white eighth-grader. The problem has been vividly chronicled by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in their recent book "No Excuses," and there is little question that black academic unerachievement is a key impediment to racial equality. As long as blacks learn less than whites do, they will continue to accomplish less than whites do, and to earn less, and in many eyes to be regarded as less.

Still, I would disagree with Romney. The great civil rights cause of the 21st century is the same as it was in the 20th: the struggle for a colorblind society. Part of what sustains the wretched learning gap is the glaring double standard of affirmative action. So long as blacks aren't held to the same criteria as whites in the competition for jobs or admission to college -- so long as racial preferences mask the harm caused by the learning gap -- the demand for reform will never boil over. The truest key to black equality is what it has always been: an insistence on seeing each other first and foremost not as members of racial classes, but as individual human beings.

Why have Americans gotten so fat? Trial lawyers are lining up to sue the makers of snacks and fast foods, but a big part of the reason for the growth in girth is something Americans aren't putting in their mouths: cigarettes.

As The New York Times noted this week, weight gain and smoking cessation are correlated. Body weight rose steeply during the 1980s and 1990s, just as smoking rates were falling. The average smoker who quits gains 10 to 12 pounds, and tens of millions of smokers have kicked the habit.

Crack down on smoking, the experts said, and Americans will be healthier. What they didn't realize was that Americans would also be heavier. "A classic case of unintended consequences," says the Times. And a useful reminder: Always take the predictions of "experts" with a grain of salt.

One of the dividing lines in my home is linguistic. I eat supper, sit on the couch, and hand my wife her purse. She eats dinner, sits on the sofa, and carries a pocketbook. Somehow we manage to communicate across this terminological gulf, but our differences are a reminder that Americans don't speak one language.

The point is beautifully illustrated by Matthew T. Campbell's map of generic names for soft drinks, which is posted at I grew up drinking pop in Ohio; my wife is a confirmed soda drinker from New York State. Somehow we ended up in Boston, where many natives still refer to any carbonated beverage as tonic. Then there are all those Southerners who say Coke, no matter what they're drinking.

"How can anyone govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Charles De Gaulle groused about the French. Something similar can be said about Americans. If we cannot even agree on the word for soft drink, is it any surprise that we're not "one nation indivisible" when it comes to politics and values either?

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is 

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