10 September 2007

The American Legal System and the Distance From the Truth

On the rare occasion that I have needed a lawyer, I've been very glad to have one. I have relatives who are lawyers. I have friends who are lawyers. Our Cozumel real estate contact says the first thing you do when you move to Mexico is get the name and number of a good lawyer and always have this information and a cell phone with you because even a fender bender can get you thrown in jail in Mexico and that's no place you want to be.

I've always found the field of law fascinating from an abstract view. I wouldn't want to do the work involved to become a lawyer (gad, all that reading!), and I wouldn't want other people's lives or futures dependent on how well I performed on a given day, but I think it must be wonderfully satisfying to know enough about the law to work it in whatever direction you need to go.

In America, very few people represent themselves. They get a good lawyer because they believe: the better the lawyer, the better the outcome. This has been drilled into us. It's even listed in the Miranda Rights they read you (when you get arrested):
You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. Do you understand?
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. Do you understand?
If you decide to answer questions now without an attorney present you will still have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney. Do you understand?
Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions without an attorney present?
All that, as if to say, you can choose to represent yourself but why the heck would you?!

Now, juxtapose that with: "When in doubt, go to the source." Remember when you were a kid and your parents wanted you to look them in the eye and tell them what happened? They were going to the source. They didn't want to hear from your friends. They wanted to hear from you. They wanted to evaluate your version of the details. They wanted to see if you were shifting from foot to foot and perspiring and avoiding eye contact. They wanted the truth.

In a legal situation, who knows what really happened: you or the lawyer? You were there. The lawyer? Not likely. The lawyer only knows what you tell him (or her.)

But that leads to a deeper question: Do we want the truth? In the words of Paul Buchman, "I'm thinking, not so much."

Our legal system isn't based on finding the truth but on determining an outcome, that is, a winner and a loser. Given that, the truth becomes inconsequential. Guilt and innocence become malleable. The well-dressed, smooth-talker who has presence and speaks in an authoritative tone is the winner. Particularly if said lawyer has cut a deal in advance of the hearing. So we intentionally distance ourselves and our court outcomes from the truth. And yet we use terms like "justice." Is this justice?

What a strange world we live in.

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