Gov. Ned Lamont lives in a bubble, and that bubble is impenetrable. I know this because he was once a potential juror on a criminal case I was trying in Stamford. The charge was attempted murder.
Bottom line: The judge, prosecutor and I agreed that after listening to Mr. Lamont’s answers to questions about the presumption of innocence, we all concluded he was unfit to serve. You see, Mr. Ned – I think of him as the human version of Mr. Ed, Wilbur’s talking horse – just couldn’t seem to commit to following the law. He was so busy trying to show us what a smart guy he was, he talked himself into a corner.
Think about that for a moment. Our governor was rejected for jury service because he could not make the necessary commitment to follow the law on a fundamental legal principle.
If memory serves, this was just after he lost a race for the United States Senate.
Mr. Ned’s governor now. But he still doesn’t understand the legal system.
His first budget proposes an extension of the sales tax to legal services. He wants to tack on the 6.35 percent levy to help close the state’s yawning budget gap. Does he not know that this will make it even harder for ordinary people to afford lawyers?
Mr. Ned lives in a bubble, I tell you. His wealth insulates him from the concerns of folks who stumble into law offices daily, desperate for help.
The fact of the matter is that the middle class is dead and dying. It never recovered from the 2008 recession. The overwhelming majority of folks charged with a crime now rely on public defenders. On the civil side, harried court administrators will tell you that their dockets are clogged with people representing themselves, so-called pro-se litigants, because they can’t afford lawyers. Folks who need lawyers can’t afford them; lawyers who need clients can’t afford to work for what clients have to offer.
So what will the net effect be of this new tax on legal services?
Rates for services will increase by as much as 10 percent, thus making lawyers an impossible luxury for even more people. The lines in the courthouses will grow on the civil side. More people will need public defenders. Some lawyers will go out of business, those already hovering on the margins trying to make a dollar out of the 15 cents of misery potential clients can offer.
I say 10 percent for the following reason.
Add $63.50 – 6.35 percent -- to the $1,000 legal bill. Then add in time for the bookkeeper to keep track of the taxes, the office manager to make sure tax reports are filed, and the accountant to audit and prepare returns. What once cost $1,000, a pittance in legal fees, will now cost $1,100. That $10,000 fee to represent someone facing prison time will now be $11,000.
Each and every day, my office gets calls from people in crisis looking for legal services. Many are candid. They know lawyers have a duty to perform a certain amount of pro bono – or free – work. “I would like to be your pro bono case” is a line someone must be teaching folks to say, I hear it so often.
That’s not a very effective way to shop for a lawyer.
I often respond by telling folks, “Well, I’d like you to be a paying case.”
Then comes the interminable dickering. Folks want a payment plan. “Trust me,” they say. “I’ll make the payments.”
Almost no one does. And only a heartless lawyer sues for an unpaid fee.
Folks looking for a lawyer follow the Bar Closing Rule.
At the end of the day, a person in crisis regards the lawyer, any lawyer, as the stranger sitting at the end of the bar at closing time. Desperation sets in. Rather than leave alone, the stranger is promised anything they ask for. But once morning dawns, and the stranger has served his purpose, they are left – often with broken promises on the pillow. A lawyer who trusts desperate strangers is either a fool or a saint. I am neither.
We don’t do payment plans. If I’m your best bet in a crisis, then I expect you to ante up if the crisis is real. If you can’t, I can’t pay my employees, expenses, and myself with promises. It just doesn’t work that way.
So Mr. Ned’s new tax just makes the market for legal services that much meaner. I’ll have to be even more careful deciding whose case to take and what terms are necessary for me to remain in business. I’ll be ten percent harder to reach for people who are already dangling on frayed lifelines.
Lines in the courthouses will grow. More public defenders will be necessary. The state will have to add staff to handle the lines and cases. The money we bring in with new taxes today will result in more spending later.
I know the punch line: What do you call five lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
Answer: A good start.
Lawyers are easy to hate. We are social oncologists, called upon to handle things when something goes wrong. We’re hated until we are needed, and when we’re needed we’re still hated, unless we make a client’s dreams – no matter how irrational the dreams – come true.
Mr. Ned’s new tax will make things that much worse. Thank you, Mr. Ned.
Query to the governor: Do you sing a little ditty when you stand daft in the morning’s mirror? You should. Think Wilbur. Think Mr. Ed. Think the theme song to that iconic show. “I am Mr. Ned.”
You ought to. I’ll certainly be humming that tune when I contemplate your new tax and its effects on potential clients, and on my firm.
I suppose it was inevitable that Connecticut’s Attorney General would sign on to California’s federal lawsuit seeking to block president Donald Trump from redirecting federal funds to build a border wall with Mexico. Watching Connecticut Attorney General William Tong run for office last year felt like watching a campaign for national office. Battling Billy Tong ran hard on his anti-Trump platform. I understood the politics even though I viewed the campaign as largely bombast.
But I have a question: How much is Battling Billy’s blather costing the State of Connecticut? The point of having an attorney general in this state is to enforce state laws, not play-acting at national politics.
Let me put my cards on the table: I think the president should build a border wall. Immigration patterns are changing in response to climate change and regional instability. The United States can’t afford to be a destination nation for each and every soul in the world looking for a better life. The fact is, we can’t care adequately for the folks already here. American life-expectancy is declining, suicide rates are climbing, and real wages aren’t growing. Bye-bye, American pie.
Battling Billy has no discernable experience in national politics, and, aside from being the son of immigrants from China, no real experience on immigration issues. Yet, he’s quick to read from the Blue State playbook on Trump: "To fabricate a national emergency based on the representation that our southern border has been breached and that people are pouring in through our border with Mexico and this is unprecedented, is a lie,'' Tong said.
Are we really paying Battling Billy to give us a low-rent version of MSNBC?
Candidly, a moratorium on immigration strikes me as a good idea; just as it strikes me as a good idea to reassess our role as global policeman. We’ve made more commitments to the world than we can honor. It’s high time to retreat, reassess and rearrange our priorities. That’s not un-American; it’s prudence.
But what of the Statute of Liberty and its majestic invitation to the world?
It is a sentimental set piece to hear of immigrants streaming to the nation in response to Emma Lazarus’s invitation. “Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!,” Lazarus wrote in a poem called The New Colossus.
Those words are on the Statute of Liberty, for goodness’s sake!
The fact of the matter is that the poem is affixed to a plaque on the pedestal on which Lady Liberty stands. The statute itself was a gift from France, arriving in the United States in 1885, and assembled and in place on Ellis Island in 1886. Lazarus’s poem was composed to help raise funds to build the pedestal; the French covered the cost of the statue and its transportation across the Atlantic. Emma’s poem was an afterthought.
I suspect that although Lazarus’s poem is a sentimental favorite, a goodly number of Americans regard it as a political promise we can’t honor. We don’t want the world’s poor. We’re not a berth for the wretched refuse of the world. We’ve plenty of homeless people already here.
Waiting for verdicts in a courtroom is tension-filled. I break the tension with practical jokes, jokes often of a decidedly juvenile nature.
“Oh, my God,” I gasped the other day while looking at my cellphone.
The others in the courtroom looked up, startled by my outburst.
“I just received a news alert. President Trump just announced that he is returning the Statute of Liberty to France. He said we’re not looking for more immigrants just now.”
No one laughed. It is a sign of the times that such news could, in fact, be real. The great showman president could decide to make that gesture. Didn’t he refer to “shit-hole countries” not long ago?
We all agreed this was a move that would be in character for Trump.
Such a move would outrage Battling Billy. He’d man whatever barricade he could find, no doubt, to avoid this desecration of the American creed. “We’re a nation of immigrants,” he’d cry.
Yes, many of us are of immigrant stock. My father came here as an illegal immigrant and died under cloak of forged papers. He was never “naturalized.” He snuck into the United States from Canada at the Windsor-Detroit border; he and his father were from Crete, and my father lived for years as an armed robber. He told me before he died it was a good living.
He didn’t pass by the Statute of Liberty. We didn’t recite Emma Lazarus’s line as an invitation we accepted. Indeed, after he shot a man in 1954, he fled Detroit to hide in Chicago, taking with him the very young woman he was seeing. Shortly thereafter, she became my mother. When he couldn’t cut the “straight” life, as he called the workaday world, he left us. I didn’t see him again for 40 years; indeed, I didn’t know whether he was alive of dead until he reappeared in my life one day as if by magic.
That’s America. Chance. Contingency. Character. Making the most of the material at hand and not looking back. Emma Lazarus is silly sentimentality. We could remove that plaque from the Statute of Liberty as a step in the direction of national maturity.
So build the damn wall in Mexico, I say. Stop all this chatter about the open arms of a nation of immigrants. We stole the county from native Americans, built a goodly portion of its wealth with slave labor, and today stand on the precipice of national exhaustion. Truisms don’t built roads, address climate change, or give a realistic basis for hope.
If we don’t build the wall this year, we’ll build it in the years to come. The inn is crowded just now; there isn’t room for everyone. That’s reality speaking.
Of course, the sound of that will offend the ears of Battling Billy. But I listen to him, and I listen to Trump, and I grow weary. Can’t we do better than these clowns for political leadership? One bleats, the other blathers. In the meantime, nothing gets done.
It’s enough to make Lady Liberty weep. She traveled across the Atlantic to listen to this?