JUSTICE OR PROFIT?
A LAWYER’S VIEW OF JUSTICE
Judge in Lyons
A NAIVE IDEALIST
LAWYER’S INTRODUCTION TO LAW AND SOCIETY
AS A town activist molded in the civil rights era and the post Assassination era, I had a different view of the legal system and how it related to the people and society than most freshly minted lawyers. I now know I was naive and gullible, as my early memories remind me. Most lawyers went to law school to become rich and famous, for prestige or other similar reasons. I was motivated by Kennedy’s inaugural address and the vision of a crusader. Over 50 years of law practice hasn’t changed that but has made me a little less conspicuous. Many lessons learned by me are ones that most practitioners don’t see or analyze., which is unfortunate.
While other lawyers are rich or at least well of by pecuniary gain, I am rich in experience and in the friends I have made along the way. One such experience was mu appointment as a municipal judge in a small town transitioning from a Justice of the Peace system administered by politicos compensated by assessing court costs on the convicted, which was 100 percent of the accused, to one paid by a municipal salary.
When I was appointed judge, I was probably untrained and full of all kinds of delusional idealism. I was the first municipal judge with a law degree to be appointed to serve in a small municipality. Before that, small municipalities had a system called justices of the peace. These members of the Justice system were caricatured with the Chief of Mayberry and Gomer Pyle, comedic characters from early TV programming. They arraigned and heard traffic cases brought to them by the Police Department’s and made their money by charging “court costs.” These were ten dollars to the Justice of the Peace (JP), and the fine went to the town. If the police brought 80 cases, that meant the magistrate or justices of peace would make rake in $800 in 1960 dollars. (Remember, this was in the late 60’’s. When the statutes changed creating municipal judges instead of justices of peace, the towns, and especially police, resisted.
The change occurred because the State was developing a reputation as a speed trap. Lafayette Colorado was listed as a town to avoid by AAA. The legislature decided to change the image. When the law made judges salaried and their pay wasn’t dependent upon whether or not they found somebody guilty, the number of acquittals miraculously went up dramatically in the Municipal Court. Of course, this did not make the police exactly ecstatic, particularly in smaller towns. The police desired money in their coffers to do things and buy toys such as tanks, water canons and Uzi’s. And they looked at the courts as the revenue generator. The police truly believed that they were doing a good thing by sticking it to the motorists for the benefit of the town. It also paid their salaries and gave them some degree of legitimacy, if not examined too closely. It was the classic form of corruption, a la Sheriff of Nottingham. The real tragedy is that the town officials didn‘t view the situation like that. They believed that it would teach motorists a lesson, and the fines were the equivalent of tuition.
However, nobody in the system really expected fundamental change. It was just political expediency for an extremely touchy situation that was attracting nationwide attention. Older lawyers knew better than to tarnish their images as a whore for a small town. When the doors to the town hall were not exactly kicked down with applicants, I was called. Wow, I thought. A judge already and I have only been sworn in for a month. I was going to be able to use my training as both a criminologist and a lawyer. I had assumed that the appointment was because my father had owned a movie house in the town. Well, I was mistaken. It was not quite what I expected.
Unfortunately, I learned that too late. As young judge, I tried to do what was right and, if I thought somebody wasn’t guilty, I would say so the cops who would take offense of my opinion as a personal attack on their integrity and honesty. To complicate things further was that speed limits, that is speeding over a posted limit, which constituted most offenses, were only prima facie indication of guilt. Speeding was defined as going as speed that was neither reasonable nor proper. The speed limit was suggested, but not absolute. That is, the determination of whether the speed the defendant was traveling was unreasonable and improper could be rebutted by testimony or other physical evidence.
For instance, in my jurisdiction, the speed limit was 10 miles an hour and road was designed for cars to go 30 miles an hour. 30 miles an hour then would be a reasonable and proper speed, depending on other conditions. That ambiguous clause about other attendant circumstances was generally used to find guilt. Judges knew why they were costumed in robes to impress citizens of their abilities, when, it was for image to allow the judges to screw the citizens.
The towns then set up a 15 miles an hour speed limit through the town, not so much as a traffic rule or for the protection of the pedestrians are other citizens, but as a speed trap to generate revenue and to placate my opinion of a 10 mile per speed limit. . One of the first things I did which when I took office and which endeared me to the citizenry’s and got to the hearts everybody victimized by the random tag team of JP and police was to indicate that I thought 25 miles an hour was a reasonable and proper speed for going through town. Of course, the police were terribly upset about this because it cut out revenue substantial. No more toys for the officers to play with. They wouldn’t be getting their tank or water cannon.
At night after I held court, I would take the officers to coffee. I wanted feedback from the officers; criticisms and the opportunity to educate them. a little bit about criminal law. They understood all right, but they took a more pragmatic approach. The town needed the money and it really wasn’t hurting anybody to issue traffic tickets, especially if the transcripts which were sent to the motor vehicle department rarely affected driving rights. Besides, the town was small and there wasn’t much going on, so the only thing police had to do was to write traffic tickets. When I found cases or drivers not guilty, it took away from whatever little status I had and that branded me as “liberal.” That was about this time when antiwar press or protests started to escalate a little bit, the hippie movement was getting into full swing, and the stream of patriotism was running rampant within the police. In the spirit of patriotism and as their symbol of backing Nixon, they all showed up wearing American flags on their sleeves. Ironic because while the police started wearing flags on their sleeves as a sign of patriotism, hippies were being prosecuted for wearing flags on the seat of their pants for flag mutilation and disrespect, like one of my clients. He was arrested and prosecuted for desecration of the Flag. The arresting officer had a flag sewn on his sleeve. Flag desecration depends on who’s wearing the flag and where it is worn.
The main lesson that I learned was that officials viewed a Court as a profit center and not a place where fairness is demanded or even expected. I learned that there were outsiders who were generally regarded as fair game. The interesting thing I learned was that the agency who raises the money gets to keep the lion’s share. The town really needed other things rather than riot gear and cop toys. Many school children had no lunch, there was no public health official there, and the infrastructure was in need of repair.
However, fear and prejudice trumped reason. The townspeople were willing to sacrifice to make sure they had a police department and no
Hippies” would come to their town. There was also an extreme amount of bigotry within the police force, particularly against the hippies were moving in fact and flouting social convention such as haircuts, clean clothes and other conformist behavior. In fact, the whole town was somewhat prejudiced.
One night when I was holding court some local townspeople showed up to watch the proceedings. There were a few disturbing the peace tickets issued against hippies; not that they were disturbing the peace, but their hair disturbed some of the people and the towns-people want to see how tough I was on the hippies. Well, the real problem that evening was that the townspeople were a little bit inebriated. So, they showed up drunk and were making a lot of noise and being rowdy. The week before, they had captured a hippy and cut his hair off with sheep shares, not the electric ones either. The Boulder County Sheriff hosed them down with garden hoses when they were arrested and jailed. They believe that the arrest empowered them to assume and treat for lice and other insects. The treatment while stripped down, the sheriff could justify this based on a health precaution. They also gave a few haircuts to arrestees on the basis that long hair was unsanitary. There was a court case pending in District Court brought by the ACLU against the sheriff’s office for the practices. So the spectators were there to see how I would treat the hippies and what would happen to their buddy who was charged with misdemeanor assault for cutting a hippie’s hair and to the hippies up there for walking in public with long hair. As court was getting ready to start, the Cowboys started shuffling coins around and making a lot of noise. I asked them three times to put the coins away, quit making noise, and the be silent because I was trying to run a court. After 10 minutes of attempting to get them quiet, I ordered the Chief of the police to arrest them and haul them away until they promised to behave. This really did not make me extremely popular with townspeople. Particularly after I had to find the noisemakers in contempt of court. I gave them suspended jail sentence. Meanwhile, I found the hippies not guilty and the cowboy the who had cut the hair was fined $100. He was lucky I didn’t send him to jail, except I knew that the town had to pay the jail costs, which brings us to another point of corruption.
The city policeman would never write anybody up for driving under the influence because it mattered in whose court it was brought because the county took half of the funds. Therefore, they always wrote them up for reckless driving. In fact, that’s what the reckless driving offenses were. Real reckless driving charges were rare in town because it was really extremely hard to drive reckless within the city limits because the town was so small. It was well-known that anybody charged with reckless driving was probably drunk or at least well on his way to being so. When found guilty of reckless driving there was a pretty stiff fine penalty. However, the citizens were quite happy because they didn’t lose their driver’s license with a reckless driving charge as they would with driving under the influence.
Until the end of my tenure, there was a constant battle between the town the police because the revenues were down. Soon, however, the court wasn’t even making enough to pay for itself. The city, rather than kicking loose from the general fund started paying me and warrants which could be redeemed when the court bank account got to the point where it could pay them. This went on for approximately 8 months until I was elected out of office. The lesson I learned from this experience is that administrators view courts as a revenue source, not as a separate branch of government. People care less about justice than supporting good government. Most people are so prejudiced against taxes and supporting their government that they would rather impose injustice on others if it saves them money. Our priorities are way out of whack.
- Posted in: Abolishing Rights