If you’re looking for something to do on one of your summer vacation days, go down to the Dallas County Courthouse, pick out a courtroom, and watch a trial for a while.
What’s that? It’s on your list of things to do, and you’ll get on it right after you yank out your molars with a pair of rusty pliers and send every penny you own to a randomly selected radio evangelist? Oh.
All right. I spent an appalling amount of time in a courtroom this summer because I had some personal interest in the outcome of a certain case. And I didn’t burn a vacation day doing it. But watching a trial is a true education. In fact, 1 now firmly believe that every citizen, before receiving the right to vote, should be required to put in a week studying a real trial. Civics lessons and theories of democracy are fine, but more and more issues of American life are being settled in courtrooms. What could be better preparation for life in a litigious society?
This may seem to set the stage for another round of lawyer-bashing. On the contrary, I was left with genuine admiration for three of the four attorneys working on this case-not to mention the jurors, who waded through two weeks of often emotional testimony, angry outbursts, and obfuscation only to find their way unerringly to the right conclusion. And I came away with a heightened appreciation of lawyers and the law. It’s verbal, rational, slow, formal-qualities that have too little to do with the way we live now.
First and foremost, lawyers dwell within the dwindling provinces of the word. Language is the lifeblood of the law. In a country glutted on the non-rational imagery of entertainment and advertisements, in which the rock video and the beer commercial have attained the status of art, the law is a splendid, vital anachronism. Above all, the process is structured and rational, seeking out cause and effect, foreknowledge, motive, intent. In fact, the archetypal “reasonable person” is the benchmark of the law. Slides, films, and other visual exhibits may be used; lawyers may pace and froth; but the drama of assigning guilt or innocence depends on knitting together a pattern of ideas through the careful use of language. Didn’t you know… couldn’t you have foreseen… wasn’t it your duty to… but if you knew that, didn’t you also know,..
And there are no absurdists in courtrooms. For the trial attorney, nothing is random, accidental. Like a playwright in reverse, he constructs an interwoven plot that some of the players may deny took place. It is a process at once fascinating and frightening.
Granted, the law has its glib demagogues who desecrate the word, but so do politics and journal ism. two other crafts that live by language. Still, lawyers in the simplest felony trial do more rigorous thinking-and demand more solid proof of claims and accusations-than we’ve seen in any recent presidential election campaign.
Second, the pace of the law sets it apart from our hurried, fragmented lives. Time has a very different meaning inside the courthouse walls, and there is no such thing as a guaranteed time limit for a trial. Complaints about the law’s delays are as old as the law itself. But would you like to be told that justice in your case must be obtained before lunchtime on Tuesday? Like a game of baseball, a trial takes as long as it takes, partly because for all the law’s rigid structure, it is more art than science. It allows for the individual touch, for style, for creativity. One lawyer works quickly, Firing a staccato burst of questions; another leans back, scratches his head, studies the ceiling, discards one line of questioning and takes up another. Thus each trial is different, and each case grows organically like a fish or a plant-or, some would insist, like a tumor.
Third, the ritual formalities of the law underscore the serious work at hand. The general aim of society is toward blurring all distinctions between one person and another in a lemming-like rush from “elitism, ” today’s great devil-word, as if no elite ever did any good. Lawyers at work must treat the jury, rival lawyers, and above all the judge with prescribed courtesy. The judge may be well known as a vacillating wimp or an intellectual blank, but once within the robes she is still “Your Honor, ” and nothing can happen unless it pleases the court.
Now this is not to say that all lawyers are angels, or that the justice system doesn’t need reforms. But when the excesses and abuses have been pruned away, we’d better retain much of the system as it is. All rise when judge and jury enter or leave: quaint behavior, but fitting. Our hopes for justice reside in these citizens. When people give up on this slow, vexing process, the alternative is violence.
Of course you can have too much of a good thing. On the night the trial ended, I fell into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the whole world was now run like a vast courtroom, with lawyers firmly in the saddle. I awoke to find this transcript beside the bed:
Wife: Henry, did you get the milk?
Attorney for Husband: Objection. Question presumes some prior arrangement by which Mr. Jones entered into some binding agreement to procure the alleged milk. There’s been no such evidence introduced.
Wife: So you forgot again?
Attorney: Objection. The question misstates the evidence. There’s been no psychiatric testimony as to prior lapses of memory. Besides, the witness’s memory is not on trial here.
Wife: Henry, you know that damned coffee tastes like mud without milk…
Attorney: Objection. The witness is an accountant, Your Honor. He has no academic training, travel experience, or gastronomic expertise that would qualify him as an authority in the individual nuances of coffees, whether served with or without milk.
Wife: You’d forget your own funeral!
Attorney: Objection. Calls for speculation on events that have not transpired. The witness cannot foretell the future…
Attorney: Your honor, she’s badgering the witness. Move that the remarks be stricken.