Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stranger than Fiction

[Published March 11, 2014]

"Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. Resolve to be honest in all events; and if, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation." -- Abraham Lincoln, from another era. 

I can talk generally about an academia-government complex forming, not just with student loans (which the government profits from), but the idea that schools no longer teach practical skills and therefore rely on their ability to make connections, many of whom are governmental, therefore rendering schools less likely to criticize government overreach.  

I can talk generally about the public’s mistaken assumption that all judges are worthy of being trusted merely because a politician gave them a title. (Riddle me this: people hate politicians and lawyers, but respect judges, who are just former lawyers. Speaking of which, forgive me this soapbox moment: stop electing D.A.s to the bench and look instead at public defenders and private civil law practitioners, especially at smaller law firms. You’re far more likely to see a judge on a civil case than a criminal case if you’re a law-abiding resident, and you want your judge to have experience with different areas of civil law. Finally, when you elect a D.A., you’re often electing someone who is beholden to the police union. Yet, the point of having a separate judicial branch is to create independent oversight, especially over the police.) 

I can talk about the lack of diversity on the local bench—18 out of 89 judges are people of color, in a county where about 37% of the population (including myself) are immigrants. 

But I'll talk about the American public's failure to understand two crucial elements of America's success: first is immigration. On 9/11, some people think of burning buildings, Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Iraq, or Bush, but me, I think of a poem:  "I've promised myself, even if I'm the last snowman, that I'll ride into spring on their melting shoulders." As I wrote, “[The poem] represents the immigrant experience and persevering through difficulty to ensure that previous generations…did not toil in vain.”  In other words, we’re all immigrants here in America, though some of us are thrice-removed, trying to find springtime.  Corny, yes.  I stand by it.  As far as I’m concerned, America is successful because of our openness to immigration.  That iPhone?  Steve Jobs’s biological father was from the Middle East.  eBay?  Persian guy from France. And so on. 

Second is the principle that public and private spheres are different and must remain so. The failure to understand this concept has caused many government employees to misunderstand their role--namely, to serve the public and, in higher positions of discretion, to have integrity. We seem a long way from the 1970s bumper stickers of "Question Authority." We are going in the wrong direction.

I’ll close with one of my favorite legal quotes from then-law-student (later Supreme Court Justice) Louis Brandeis:

That the individual shall have full protection in person and in property is a principle as old as the common law; but it has been found necessary from time to time to define anew the exact nature and extent of such protection. Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society. Thus, in very early times, the law gave a remedy only for physical interference with life and property, for trespasses vi et armis. Then the ‘right to life’ served only to protect the subject from battery in its various forms; liberty meant freedom from actual restraint; and the right to property secured to the individual his lands and his cattle. Later, there came a recognition of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and his intellect. Gradually the scope of these legal rights broadened; and now the right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life, -- the right to be let alone [by the government]; the right to liberty secures the exercise of extensive civil privileges; and the term "property" has grown to comprise every form of possession -- intangible, as well as tangible.

           -- “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review, Warren and Louis Brandeis, 1890. 

No comments: