Jan
31

Wayne LaPierre's Empty Rhetoric

One of the down-sides of practicing law is having little time to do such things as watch television. Without a steady diet of the flickering screen, a certain sense of cultural illiteracy grows. So when I found myself in a hotel the other day, I turned on the tube. Wow.

I was huffing and puffing my way through an hour on an exercise bike while watching Fox News. The commentary was acid, even rancid. If Obama says hello, it’s disingenuous. I called my wife afterwards to report that full half of the country had lost its mind.

The next night, still stranded in the same hotel, I tried MSNBC. I watched a guy named Ed. He was just as screwy as the folks on Fox, although, I confess, I liked Ed’s screwiness. I suppose we’re fellow travelers.

All the rancor got me to thinking about Aristotle and his definition of citizenship. Folks are members of a community based not just on common interests, but also on mutual and reciprocating bonds of affection. It takes trust to build a community. We seem short on trust, at least it felt that way looking at the talking heads.

But I wonder whether the rest of us don’t have more sense than prime-time performers. Perhaps the media draws out the extremists, who preen for position, each trying to shout the other down. Condescension from Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow doesn’t look all that different.

When Barry Goldwater told the nation that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice, I doubt he had in mind extremism for its own sake.

What are we to make of the likes of Wayne LaPierre? He’s the National Rifle Association mouthpiece, a million-dollar-a-year spokesman for the gun industry. He testified before the U.S. Senate the other day and tried to lecture the Senators on King George III and the right to resist. That’s stupid and empty rhetoric in the context of the debate on gun-control legislation.

The NRA does not promote resistance to constituted authority by gun owners. Indeed, I doubt gun lobbyists can recite with approval a single instance in which a gun was used to resist a present-day tyrant in these United States. I mean, LaPierre didn’t exactly turn to Gabrielle Gifford, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot, and nearly killed, in a mass shooting, and say: “Sic temper tyrannis.” (“Thus always to tyrants.”)

LaPierre is the bauble-headed dupe of the gun industry. That industry sells guns to the military and to ordinary citizens. It is a gaggle of corporations growing fat and sassy selling fear, and it wants a gun or two in the hands of each and every American. But let’s cut all the Second Amendment crap: Those guns aren’t pointed at government or captains of industry -- we point them at one another.

Guns are the antithesis of trust. Being taught to fear one another as a patriotic duty is civic death. Prancing around mouthing lines from the debates arising from the founding of the American republic is meaningless noise in the context of the gun debate. I doubt anyone seriously believes that gun ownership makes us free.

There are some 300 million guns in circulation in the United States -- that’s 80 guns per 100 people. It is the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Yet, listening to the rhetoric on the right, we are losing freedoms daily to an encroaching government. Shouldn’t these guns be keeping us free?

The sad fact is that guns are something like corporate lollipops. They are the sweets corporations sell us to keep us pacified. If people get frustrated over lack of jobs or housing or health care, let them shoot one another -- anything to avoid asking meaningful questions about meaningful reform. I don’t see guns as liberating devices.

I suspect most NRA members are ashamed of the rhetorical garbage LaPierre spews. But it sells. We’re entertained by it, I suppose. It keeps the chattering class, of which, I confess, I am a member, busy. But I can’t help wondering whether we don’t deserve better than what the networks are offering.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


Jan
31

Time To Reform Connecticut Jury Selection

Justice delayed, we’re told, is justice denied. In Connecticut, delay is routine. State lawmakers can change that during the current session of the General Assembly. Lawmakers should reform the manner in which jurors are selected in civil and criminal cases. All it would take is a simple change to one state statute.

Lawyers call the process of jury selection “voir dire,” pronounced “vwah deer,” although westerners like to pronounce it “vor dyer.” It is an old French term meaning “to see, to speak.” It is the process of questioning potential jurors to determine whether they can be far and impartial.

In every other state in the union, potential jurors are questioned as a group, with either the presiding judge or lawyers in the case posing questions. Every federal court in the United States, including those in Connecticut, use group voir dire as well. Only in Connecticut do we question potential jurors one at a time, each outside the presence of all others. No one contends that the quality of justice in Connecticut so far surpasses that administered in other states that others want to copy our system.

Because it’s the law, we have a complicated-sounding name for the jury selection in Connecticut — individual, sequestered voir dire. (Say it quickly tonight at dinner, and watch the reaction of others presence at the table.)

The result is that in many cases, it takes far longer to pick a jury than it does to put on evidence in the case. It is not uncommon to take a week or so to pick a juror in a serious criminal case. Indeed, I just tried a murder case in Norwich where that is exactly what happened — six days of jury selection to try a case concluded in less than a week of evidence. By contrast, I’m in trial now in a federal tax evasion case where it took one day to pick the jury.

It takes a long time to get a case to trial in Connecticut. Our dockets are lengthy. Folks lose confidence in a system when they cannot get their cases heard promptly. It is not uncommon to field phone calls from folks looking to replace their lawyer because “nothing is happening” in their case. The sad fact is, you can wait for years to get a jury trial in Connecticut in a simple case. Often there is nothing to do but wait.

We ended up with this slow-motion form of justice as a result the confluence of two forces. First, the state Constitution, at Article First, Section 19, guarantees to all the “right to question each juror individually.” This right can be satisfied by questioning folks in a group setting. The lawyer’s right to ask questions of each in the group is satisfied simply. Just let the lawyer ask as many questions as the group can tolerate.

It’s a state statute that requires the process to drag on by means of questioning jurors one-by-one, out of the presence of others. Connecticut General Statutes Section 54-82f guarantees parties the “right to examine ... each juror outside the presence of other jurors.” Hence, during jury selection, each potential juror is hailed into court, plopped either in a witness box in criminal cases, or summoned to sit with lawyers wherever space can be found in civil cases, and questioned alone.

Plenty of lawyers like individual sequestered voir dire. I heard one dean of the plaintiff’s bar opine once that “real lawyers” like the way we do things, apparently trying to do by fiat would he could not accomplish by argument — persuade folks that Connecticut’s system of selecting jurors is superior. I suspect the real reason some lawyers like the Connecticut method of selecting juries is that it builds delay, and legal fees, into the system. In some harried jurisdictions, jury selection in a civil case can take days, even weeks, on end, as the court staff struggles to juggle its many commitments. Having tried many cases in the state and federal courts, it is obvious to me that there is little qualitative difference between a jury selected in a group-method, as is done in the federal courts, by contrast to the costly state method of sequestered voir dire.

There certainly are cases so sensitive, so complex, that questioning potential jurors outside the presence of others might make sense. But this determination should be made on a case-by-case basis. Let lawyers who think they need a week to do a day’s honest work persuade a judge that Connecticut’s costly selection mechanism is necessary. I repeat: No other state in the nation does it the way we do. Neither does the federal government. I am aware of no nation on Earth that picks juries the way we do. 

The Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association will resist these changes to the death. The lawyer’s lobby doesn’t want to change the way we do business. Why should it — changing the law is sort of like telling a cabby to turn the meter off when the engine is idling. But the fact is that no empirical evidence supports the assertion that we do it better in Connecticut using individual sequestered voir dire. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary — it takes far longer to get a case to trial in Connecticut than it does almost anywhere in the country.

Here’s what’s necessary to change the law. Amend Section 52-84f of the statutes to read as follows: “There shall be a rebuttable presumption that potential jurors shall not be questioned individually, outside the presence of all others.” In legal-speak, a rebuttable presumption is sort of like a default setting. It tells a judge that in the absence of other good reasons, it is presumed that the prescribed way of doing things should be followed.

Yes, change is frightening. We’ve done it our quaint, and now antiquated, way for many years here in the Land of Steady Habits. But we should embrace this change as a means of increasing public confidence in the courts. If lawmakers doubt the wisdom of this view, ask a few judges to come testify about what’s going on in the courts.

They’ll testify that the way we pick juries now adds nothing but cost and delay to an already over-burdened system.

Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register Co.

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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

Disclaimer:

Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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