Monday, December 2, 2013

Which is Worse, Going to Jail or Going Bankrupt?

     I am told (by lawyers) that I need a team of lawyers, not just one or two.
     That's the word they use, team, evoking sportsmanlike competition against a benign opponent, and sweaty, backslapping, high-fiving camaraderie with one another, the teammates, who afterward go out for burritos and beer and turn the case into oft-repeated anecdotes, as the defendant slinks home in the shadows.
     But my opponent isn't benign.  It's the Government with a capital G.  It's my government.  And to whatever extent the government, big and belligerent as it has become, assumes a paternalistic attitude toward its citizens, it's my father, the big bad wolf, the raging, overbearing head-of-household, the boogie man, as my brothers called him--our real father, that is.
     How do you fight your father?  What people, in a family-values-oriented country, are going to side with me?  Others, who also had awful fathers?
     "It's going to be expensive," the latest lawyer tells me, as I interview him.  "Really expensive."
     "Right," I say, looking out the window, fixing my gaze on the most distant object I can find, which last week was a streetlamp near the courthouse.
     "We need to know if you have the assets.  You'll have to give us that assurance."
     "Right," I say.  If only the streetlamp could go on, and shed some light.  But it's daytime.
     What does an innocent person look for when shopping for a lawyer to do battle with a father?  What can that person hope to get, for the money?  What might I get?  
     Not innocence;  I already have that.
     Certainly not dignity:  a person either has it or doesn't.
     Proof of innocence?  Proof to whom?  The jury, of course.  Community members,  my community.
     But a presumptive jury hasn't questioned my innocence, no more than its members question the innocence of a grocery clerk.  Not until they populate the jury box.  Jury members are supposed to presume innocence.  But when a defendant is in the dock, the jury is thinking:  that person did something wrong, or he wouldn't be here.  Accusation is all it takes to brand a person.  Guilt, or the possibility of guilt, becomes the subject matter then, not innocence.  Especially when it's the government who's prosecuting.  The authority.  The father almighty.
     It would be an unusual and libertarian jury that started out saying:  "I'll bet the government is on one of its rampages again, and this person got caught in its net. Let's straighten things up, and get those zealous agents to clear out!  We citizens should be left in peace to work and pay taxes!"
     The new lawyer-recruit is sitting in front of me with his colleague on his right.  The lawyer stares at me;  he's sizing me up.  Maybe I look dispirited, because he tells me a story, to cheer me up.
     "I won the last case, didn't I?"  he nudges his colleague, who smiles and nods.  She has a big smile, and I think she might have braces.
     "It was a big case, and it went on for three years."
     I sit quietly.  What does this have to do with me?
     "Do you know how many prosecutors the government had in that case?" he asks.
     "How many?"
     "Twelve!"  he shouts.  "That's why you need a team of lawyers, not just one or two."
     "Why did the government have twelve prosecutors?"
     "Because it could."
     "They don't have to foot the bill, I suppose.  We taxpayers do."
     "That's right."
     "So, what happened?"
     "We secured our client's innocence, but afterward he declared bankruptcy."
     I don't say what I'm thinking, which is that the lawyers cleaned him out.
     "Was he innocent?"  I ask politely.
     "Hell if I know.  What difference does it make?"
     Doesn't it make a difference?  It makes a difference to me.
      I don't care if you're innocent or guilty, all these lawyers tell me.
     The truth is too obtuse, it doesn't matter.
     Winning matters.  Making a living matters, at least to lawyers.
     You pay a lawyer to keep you out of jail, whether you're innocent or guilty.
     You pay a lawyer to keep your nasty father at bay.
     "Don't lay a hand on her!" the lawyer threatens, "or I'll blow your brains out."
     The whole courtroom is listening.
     And your father steps back, suddenly cowed.
     Maybe you go bankrupt doing this.
     But it's worth it, right?

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