COVID-19: Ruminating about Ruminations


            “Grandpa, what did you do doing during the war?”

            I can imagine a time, a few years down the road, in which a grandchild asks about the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the virus, we are told on the news day after day, that has “changed everything.”

            I won’t have much to say about how I’ve spent the first week or so.

            The honest answer: “I slept.”

            I’m neither a health-care worker nor the provider of a service that is really all that essential in a public health crisis. I’m a trial lawyer, spending most of my professional effort defending folks accused of serious crimes. Once the courts were closed and the filing deadlines on all manner of pleadings were extended, I was suddenly left all dressed up with no place to go.

            I was traveling when the panic set in. Stay home. If you are exposed to the virus, self-quarantine yourself for 14 days. I sent my wife to stay elsewhere while I roosted at home – alone. God only knows what I was exposed to in the various airports through which I’d passed. Our kids are adults and have busy lives elsewhere. One, a young doctor, works in a New York City hospital. I’ve never known him to know fear, until now. Hard days are ahead, he warned.

            A day passed, then another. Then it was a week. I’d walked miles alone through reservoirs near our home. I taxed the engine on our treadmill. I ate enough to need the exercise. And I slept.

            I justified the first week’s lack of focus as the summer vacation I suspect I won’t get this year. When the virus passes, if it does, the effort to repair the damage done to the economy and the hopes and expectations of my clients will be overwhelming. I know that.

            Week one: I slept.

            This week I crawled out from beneath the covers.

            There were calls to answer, negotiations to undertake, a business to which to attend.

            And all at once I realized that infected or not, COVID-19 is everywhere.

            On Monday, I tried to explain to the mother of a potential client that if the state could prove the charges against her son, he would go to jail. For how long?, she wanted to know.

            That depends, I told her.

            In part, the length of a sentence after a guilty plea depends on the jurisdiction and the tastes of the prosecutor and the presiding judge. I knew that in the jurisdiction in which the caller’s son was charged, the “market rate” of a guilty plea was two to four years, depending on the character of the defendant. I was about to tell her that when a voice sounded: “That was then; what about now?”

            Will relatively minor offenses carry less time after COVID-19? We’re debating the release of folks from prison as the virus strikes, perhaps a sign that incarceration will no longer be the panacea it sometimes seems to be. Will we so cavalierly spend the resources it takes to imprison someone when we’ve an economy to restore?

            The same thing happened later in the week while discussing resolution of a far more serious crime with a prosecutor. The client has spent more than a decade in prison. His conviction has been overturned. Long ago he was offered a prison sentence of less than the time he has served. He went to prison and had the book thrown at him. Can he go home now?

            The prosecutor agreed to keep an open mind.

            A steady stream of folks continue to call for help with civil and family matters. The courts are closed, but their crises are acute. Some are desperate for help I cannot offer. I try to explain that there are only so many courts, so may judges, so much time, and that right now everything is on hold. I don’t know how long the impasse will last. I don’t know who goes first when the courts reopen. I don’t think anyone really knows what happens next.

            In other words, I’ve lost my ability to counsel folks on what to expect; I cannot tell folks what’s reasonable. A good part of the value of my experience, the decades I’ve spent in the trenches, has vanished.

            So I’ve spent this week reading legal websites and publications to see how others are coping, what others forecast, what plans wiser heads conceive. I know that when the crisis passes, we’ll pick up our briefcases and return to court to plead the cases and causes our clients bring us. We’ll do so in a world where much in the foreground remains the same – the same legal doctrines, the same procedures, the same rules – will apply, more or less.

            What will have changed is the background against which these dramas will play out. What was reasonable a month ago may not be reasonable six months from now. We’ll all be called upon to adjust.

            The long walks, the naps, the silent reveries spent staring out the window – these are not signs of time wasted. They are a form of work, or preparation for a brave new world. Or so I tell myself.

            So what did I do during the war? I despaired. I cried some. I felt sorry for myself and my community. And then I tired of the silence and began to look around to see how best to prepare for what comes next. I suspect a lot of you are doing the same thing.

            I’m looking forward to seeing all of you on the other side of this crisis.

           

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