My earliest memories of anything related to lawyers or the courtroom come from reruns of a very old television show called Perry Mason.
He would bring them in his office and interview them, and then they would head for court within a matter of a few days. They would try the case for a few hours and just when things looked like they were utterly hopeless for Mason’s client, his private investigator – Paul Drake – would burst through the courtroom door with shocking new evidence that – after it was used by Mason in a cutting cross-examination – would totally exhonerate his client.
I loved it.
Some years later, when I was in college, I would fall in love with another courtroom drama called LA Law. This program was a little different from Perry Mason. It involved this very attractive cast of stars, including Jimmy Smits and Harry Hamlin. People would come to their firm seeking help because they had been injured or because some other injustice had been done to them, and they would make these impassioned arguments in the courtroom and win gazillions of dollars.
Based on my extensive experiences in watching these programs, I knew that – if I ever became a lawyer – several things were sure to happen:
1. I would be a “good guy” lawyer.
2. My clients would all be “good guy” clients, and would always immediately tell me the entire truth about what is going on in their case so I could help them.
3. I would have a really good investigator who would always find evidence to vindicate my client.
4. I would resolve all of their cases favorably – and in a dramatic courtroom fashion – within a week or two, at most.
5. They would love me for it, even if I sent them a huge bill.
6. I would look like Harry Hamlin.
7. My office would be plush and palatial.
8. I would be surrounded by other people in the legal world who look surprisingly like a young Raymond Burr, Jimmy Smits, and a twenty-something Susan Dey.
9. I would have plenty of time for an active social life. After all, these trials don’t last more than an hour or so, do they?
10. Lawyering would not involve any paperwork.
Well….guess what? I know this is hard to believe, but TV lied to me. I was wrong or misinformed. Wrong on most counts. But also misinformed on the nature of what is often going on in a courtroom.
I don’t get to be Perry Mason. Real courtrooms, it turns out, are much messier and much more confusing, and what happens in courtrooms is much more emotionally and technically complex, than what I saw on on TV.
And here is the problem.
I think it is a part of human nature to want – or even expect – to find a narrative experience in the things that are most important to us. That is how we make sense of our lives. Thus, we form and tell stories about things like: how we got a job, how we bought a house, how we met and got married, how we had our second child, how we came into (or out of) relationship with Jesus, how we lost our mother/father to cancer, how we came to dislike science fiction movies, etc. These stories all have certain elements to them – and the familiarity of those elements is a part of what identifies us, and makes us comfortable with who we are.
At the heart of our understanding about what is happening in a courtroom is an expectation that a story is taking place there. A story with elements just like the romantic elements that comprise the story of how we met our spouse. In that story, good people and evil people confront each other, and a judge and/or jury vindicates the good person and condemns the evil person (it is, for lack of a better term, a justice narrative).
Depending on your socio-political viewpoint, you will tend to want to cast the characters in different ways. More liberal-type people will generally view the “little guy” (who is often injured, but may claim to have been wronged in some other way) as the good person and the larger, more corporate, more wealthy interest as the evil force. The justice narrative, if played out properly, will level the socioeconomic playing field, vindicating the person who was trampled by the rich and powerful. If you are more conservative, you will likely see the evil person as someone who is trying to manipulate the system by exaggerating an injury or wrong so that the system will by sympathetic. Business interests are being harmed because frivilous claims asserted by evil people are causing insurance rates to skyrocket. This sort-of thing needs to be stopped, and in their view, a good justice narrative will recognize the frivolity of the claim.
Underlying this narrative is the assumption that some people are good and some people are evil, that they are always pitted against each other in the courtroom, and that the system will always ferret out the two and return a just result.
Unfortunately, if it is true that good and evil people are always pitted against each other, I often find that I can’t tell the difference. Instead, what I find is that litigants on both sides are surprisingly similar to folks I know outside the courtroom. They are neither super-human paragons of virtue, nor evil, manipulative schemers. They have wives and families, they often attend church, they coach their kids’ baseball teams, they volunteer their time for good causes and may need to care for sick family members, they struggle with issues like anger and self-deception, and they love to sit down and play with their kids or grandkids at the end of the day.
Simply put, litigants are people. But they are people who are being forced into a system that wants to “tell” a justice narrative. The system wants to either condemn them or vindicate them, and – in that system – they are forced to fight for vindication.
Once you start pitting ordinary people against each other in a system like that, ugly things begin to happen – things that Perry Mason and Harry Hamlin never really encountered.
That is not to say that there aren’t cases where a justice narrative ought to be played out in a courtroom. Sometimes an injured person has been wronged by evil conduct that deserves to be punished. Sometimes a person is knowingly asserting a false claim in an effort to enrich themselves by manipulating the system. A justice narrative is needed in those cases. But more often than not, the issues involved in the controversy are much more complex and much less clear-cut.
Coming up: Why I now loathe TV shows, movies, and books about lawyers. Plus (later) another reality check, this time on why (even at its best) our justice system doesn’t “work” very reliably, and why Christians – of all people – shouldn’t expect it to.