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THE LAW IS A ASS for 05/27/2003
Due to my hectic schedule at work, I must, regretfully, suspend "The Law is a Ass" for the foreseeable future. Thank you for your years of support. Please feel free to enjoy my past "The Law is a Ass" columns in the Installment Archives. - Bob Ingersoll
"The Law is a Ass" Installment # 193
Originally written as installment # 181 and published in Comics Buyer's Guide issue # 842, Jamuary 6, 1990 issue
This column started my love-hate relationship with writer/producer David Kelly, as in I love to hate his work.
If Ally McBeal, The Practice, girl's club and Boston Public, which I find to be about as appealing as root canal surgery with a Roto-rooter, weren't reason enough for this love-hate relationship, then this week I offer up a little piece of celluloid called From the Hip.
What can I say about From the Hip other than "What's not to hate?" I dunno know. How about "needs 'bots?"
THE LAW IS A ASS
Installment # 193by
I freely admit I live in a split-level, not a leaking, drafty garret lacking both heat and indoor plumbing. I cop to all allegations that the only starving I've suffered was of the self-imposed variety during my recent diet. And I won't demand my Miranda rights, before confessing that, I, while far from debt-free, am, I hope, equally far from Chapter Seven.
But I'll deny to my death any claim that I don't suffer for my art.
Case in point, as Rod Serling was wont to say: Rambo: First Blood II. The only people who included this waste of celluloid in their Best 10 List were Sly and the Family Stallone. The rest of us recognized Rambo as mendacious crud so empty-headed as to fail even as, "mindless entertainment," no matter how much emphasis we put on the mindless.
And I watched it. Not because I wanted to. I had to for my art. See, I sold a story, in part because the editor liked the anti-Rambo sentiment in the plot--a sentiment, which existed despite my never having seen the thing. Suddenly, I, who took extreme pride in having avoided Rambo the way one shuns Moonies who have started a Mary Kay Cosmetics franchise, had to watch it. After all, I had to see what I was against.
Not enough suffering for you? Then consider this:
"You should do a column on From the Hip," or so said Hulk-scribe, Peter David, some eighteen months ago. "You ought to write about From the Hip," also sprach Isabella about twelve months ago. "Why don't you do From the Hip in your column?" wrote several of you over the last six months.
I didn't need a brick wall to fall on me. I watched From the Hip.
I would have preferred the brick wall.
Watching From the Hip is a miserable experience. It's supposed to be a black comedy about the legal profession which was co-written by David E. Kelly, the lawyer-turned-Hollywood mogul who, years later, would give us such legally inaccurate fare as The Practice, Ally McBeal and girl's club. Problem is this movie, like so much of Kelly's product forgets the simple principle that even black comedies are supposed to be funny. So, operating on the assumption that misery loves company, today I rip From the Hip so we can all suffer together.
From the Hip stars Judd Nelson as Robin Weathers, a young lawyer and a man I immediately knew I wouldn't like, when he woke up his girlfriend by scraping his fingernails on a blackboard. (Don't they cover cruel and unusual punishment in law school anymore?) Robin is just one year out of law school, and works for a prestigious Boston law firm. How prestigious? The firm was founded by Oliver Wendell Holmes; it would have turned down Prince Charles's business, because he lacked breeding.
Robin, of course wasn't the only lawyer in the firm. There was Craig Duncan, the stodgy, three-piece-suited, tight-assed, chief litigator played by Darren McGavin. Years past Mr. McGavin played the rebel reporter in an unpressed, seersucker suit, Carl Kolchak: the Night Stalker. Seeing Darren McGavin in From the Hip made me long for those Night Stalker days, when every week Carl Kolchak would dispatch some sort of monstrosity. While I watched From the Hip I realized, here was a whole new monstrosity that required dispatching and Carl had sold out.
Then there was the matronly senior partner, played by matronly Nancy Marchand. Ms. Marchand also had a prior history of "matronly," that of the matronly newspaper owner, Mrs. Pynchon, in Lou Grant. Nancy, sweetheart, call your agent; break out of that type casting trap. Even Lucy played a bag lady once. Of course, after Lucy did that she went on to star in Life With Lucy, a show whose lack of success was measured by megatons instead of nielsen points, so maybe Ms. Marchand knows what she's doing after all.
There were, of course, other attorneys in the firm--each of them pro forma and straight out of the cookie cutter. I'll spare you the details of these extras; not so much because I'm taking mercy on you as because there weren't any details to share.
Like all young attorneys fresh out of law school working in stodgy law firms, Robin spends his time researching, writing and generally being bored. He wants more. He wants to get into the court room and try a case. So he forces the firm to let him try a case. Forced as in made them realize that what a good attorney he was and why he should try the case? No forced as in, put a gun to their heads.
Duncan had a minor trial with a major client coming up. The client, one Raymond Torkensen played by Ed Winters, was a bank president who, when confronted by idiots on the Board of Directors, made it a practice to hit them then--miraculously not get fired. Now Torkensen was being sued--again--for battery. The court had set a trial date--an absolutely rock-solid, no more continuances granted, because this flea carrier of a case had been clogging the judge's docket long enough already trial date. Robin did not tell Duncan about the date. Instead, he pretended that a weeks-old memo he wrote announcing the trial date had fallen behind a file cabinet in Duncan's office. Actually, Robin didn't write--or hide--the memo until the day before trial. So, as only one day remained before a trial for which Duncan had not prepared but for which Robin had done the research and for which the court refused to grant another continuance, and because the case was minor; Duncan reluctantly agreed to let Robin try it.
Okay, Robin showed initiative. So did the coup in Panama. What bothered me was that Robin showed absolutely no comprehension of legal ethics that require one to put one's client's best interests before one's own. But what am I complaining about? With those professional ethics, Robin will probably be the keynote speaker at next year's awards banquet.
Torkensen didn't care. He had no illusions that he could win his trial. All he wanted was that Robin drag the trial out for three days and run up his opponent's legal fees. "He may win $50,000.00," Torkensen laughed, "but he'll spend $20,000.00 doing it." Does Robin do this, even though it violates every ethical rule forbidding intentional dilatory tactics whose sole purpose is to drive up the opponent's costs? Does Las Vegas have Elvis clones? Forget the awards dinner, Robin could teach an entire ethics seminar single-handed.
Robin gets his three-day trial. He does so by asking his client's opinion of the plaintiff, then arguing over the answer, "He's an asshole," after plaintiff objects. Robin demands a special evidentiary hearing on the admissibility of the word asshole, a hearing the judge grants, because--according to the movie--he's spent twenty years trying boring civil cases and wants a little excitement.
I'm sorry, I've been in trials. I've heard some of the actual language used by witnesses. It would shock Lennie Bruce, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock. That a judge with a crowded docket in a major-sized city--even one that used to ban "blue movies" regularly such as Boston--would waste a day arguing the admissibility of an anatomical epithet is about as likely as the judge allowing Robin to urge the jury to find for the defendant not because of the facts of the case, but because that must express society's outrage over nuisance suits that clog the courts' dockets, while innocent children injured in horrible accidents die before they can get a trial date. Yeah, Robin did that and, yeah, the court allowed it. In this fictional world, that is. It the real world, such tactics are called "jury nullification" and they're improper, because they ask the jury to ignore the law. Jury nullification is routinely stopped by trial judges, when an attorney tries it, because it asks the jury to ignore the law. Still, in this little world, Robin does it, the trial court allows it, and the jury buys it by returning a verdict for the defendant.
Which brings up the next improbability in this movie: That the judge would let a verdict for the defendant stand, despite clear evidence that the defendant did, indeed, hit the plaintiff and not grant a plaintiff motion for judgment not withstanding the verdict. Again, in the real world, after the improper tactic of jury nullification resulted in a desired verdict, most judges wouldn't allow the verdict to stand. But, if that happened, Robin wouldn't have won the trial and wouldn't be rewarded by his staid and proper law firm for winning the trial.
Which brings up the next piece of mescaline reality in this movie: Robin's firm doesn't censure him for his argumentative, abrasive, unethical, unprofessional, strident, scream-like-a-banshee-in-heat, contempt-citation-garnering, table-pounding courtroom demeanor. No it rewards him by making this first-year associate a junior partner. Yes, Robin's stuffy, leather-chaired employers, broke every rule of law firm management and happy employee relations by jumping a first-year associate in the promotion list over every second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth year associate and promoting him to junior partner, because he became a media darling said media nicknamed--in a moment of true originality and without even a decent credit to Harold Arlen--"Stormy" Weathers and attracted lots of new business to the firm? Yes, the law firm would like the new business, but it still wouldn't promote a first-year associate to partner.
I guess it's a good thing that the firm didn't find out that Robin and opposing counsel, Matt Cowens, had improperly, unethically and illegally orchestrated the entire trial before hand, so that they could look good and win advancement in their careers. Not because it would have fired Robin for this illegal behavior which, if discovered, could cost many of the lawyers in the firm their licenses. If it had, the firm would have jumped Robin past partner--past senior partner, even--and nominated him for the Supreme Court. (A "begging the question" aside. I know why Robin agreed to this illegal deception. But why would Matt Cowens have done it? Risked illegality and losing his license to make himself look good and advance his career? Excuse me, he lost. How does he look good by losing? Sure Hamilton Burger kept getting re-elected district attorney even though he lost all those cases against Perry Mason, but remember, not only did Hamilton win his other cases, he also won all the cases that followed the ones he tried against Perry, when he prosecuted the person who obligingly confessed in open court for Perry.)
So far, we've had a lawyer with no trial experience concealing an important document from his boss so that he can finagle his way into a trial, thereby violating the rule that his client must come first, then striking a secret deal with opposing counsel to fix the case, then engaging in the illegal tactic of jury nullification, all so that he can be rewarded with premature promotion. And all this in only the first thirty-or-so minutes of the movie. Just imagine what would have happened if this had been mini-series instead of a movie.
Anyway, the rest of From the Hip is taken up with Robin's defense of Douglas Benoit, a Boston University professor played by John Hurt and accused of bludgeoning a prostitute to death with a hammer and facing the death penalty. But don't concern yourself over much that Robin, who had all of one civil trial's worth of experience, would be defending a capital case, despite his utter lack of seasoning. The movie had an explanation for why Benoit would have hired a lawyer who was greener than last year's meat to defend him in a chair case.
The case against Benoit, you see, was circumstantial. A prostitute, who Benoit had frequently hired to ferry about to functions and with whose pimp Benoit had fought, disappeared. The pimp had also disappeared. The prostitute's clothes and a hammer--both stained with blood matching the prostitute's--were found in Benoit's car. There was no proof of murder, however, as no body had been found. While an ordinary defense attorney might have been able to win such a case for an ordinary client, Benoit was not ordinary.
Benoit was a genius, but also a cold, calculating, callous, effete, snobbish prig of a man, who wore his self-proclaimed superiority the way the Gabor sisters wear jewelry. In short he had all the jury appeal of a greedy land developer who was foreclosing on the Sisters of the Poor so that he could convert the Mission for the homeless into a toxic waste dump. Benoit figured that Robin's status as a common-man, media darling would counter his own shortcomings and win the case for him.
Okay, I didn't say it was a good explanation.
The trial starts poorly. Matt Cowens, who used the notoriety he won in the Torkensen case to land a job as an assistant district attorney, is sitting second chair in the Benoit case. Matt knows that "Stormy" Weathers was a fake, who orchestrated his entire showpiece trial. The fact that he is again facing Cowans, for reasons that were explained about as well as why "Supply Side Economics" wasn't "Trickle Down Economics," so demoralizes Robin, that Robin lies down and dies. It takes a major pep talk from Robin's girlfriend to bring "Stormy" Weathers back.
"Cowans didn't create 'Stormy' Weathers," the girlfriend says, "you did. He didn't think of the winning closing argument, you did. 'Stormy' Weathers is who Benoit hired, and that's who he should get." As inspirational speeches go, this one wasn't as good as, "Win one for the Gipper," but From the Hip wasn't as good a movie as the exceedingly mediocre Knute Rockne All American, either.
Suddenly, "Stormy" is back. In full, and excessive, force. His most outrageous, and far-fetched, tactic involved discrediting a police officer's opinion that Benoit should have known what was under the seat of his car with a rabbit and a . . . well, a sexual device. I'm not going to tell you what "Stormy" did. Whatever you can think of, is, no doubt, better than what they were allowed to do in a PG movie.
After "Stormy" had the jury on his side, he tried his most brazen stunt: he stated that his investigators had found the victim alive and that in one minute she was going to come through the court room doors and tell them Dr. Benoit had not killed her. After all eyes turned to the doors, Robin argued that the jury looked, so it must have some reasonable doubt whether the victim was actually dead, which was sufficient doubt for it to find the defendant not guilty of murder.
I'm sure that most lawyers watching From the Hip--at least those who hadn't already fled the jurisdiction of the theater--groaned at this. It's one of those legal, urban legends; a story that supposedly actually happened in every major city but probably didn't, although one can always find a person who didn't actually see it himself but who is the hair dresser of someone who once shined the shoes of a taxi driver who drove the brother-in-law of someone who was on the jury and saw it happen. I'm equally sure that all those groaning lawyers also knew exactly what happened next in the movie. Dr. Benoit did not look at the door. (That's the way the urban legend goes, you see, everyone in the courtroom looks at the door except the defendant, so the jury concludes he didn't look, because he knew the victim wasn't coming through the door, because he did kill the victim and finds the defendant guilty.)
Fortunately for Dr. Benoit, the jury was looking at the door, not at him, so didn't see him not looking at the door. Unfortunately for Robin, he did see Dr. Benoit not looking. Robin concludes that Benoit must be guilty, because he didn't look at the door. He confronts Benoit with his deductions and Benoit denies them but denies them in such a way that Robin learns that Benoit was impotent, that Benoit cowered in fear while the pimp beat him and that Benoit did have an explosive temper when confronted with such attacks on his masculinity. Now Robin is even more convinced that Benoit is guilty and decides that he cannot allow so psychotic a killer as Benoit to go free. So, Robin borrows a page from Al Pacino's script in And Justice For All--a page Robin then lent to the movie Criminal Law--and sets out to prove his client's guilt in trial.
The problem: how to do this without getting disbarred. Robin's solution is to trick his client into testifying hoping that Benoit will demonstrate his explosive temper under during the cross-examination. Benoit cooperates and testifies, despite Benoit's knowing that Robin now wants to see him convicted and concluding that Robin wants him to testify so that he will make a mistake on the stand and convict himself.
The District Attorney, on the other hand, does not cooperate. He manages a singularly inept cross-examination that will never result in Benoit's conviction. So Robin objects and in the course of objecting makes a speech and in the course of the speech argues the DA asked improper questions insinuating that Benoit killed the prostitute when the DA knew that Benoit was impotent and argues that the DA improperly insinuated that Benoit fought with the pimp, when the DA knew that Benoit cowered in fear while the pimp pulped him.
Robin objects like this for what seems minutes, until Benoit finally does what Robin hoped he'd do, reacts to the repeated attacks on his potency with explosive with rage and attacks Robin with the hammer. Bingo! Instant guilty verdict.
Mercifully, the movie ends here. We missed the scenes of Robin arguing to the Supreme Court that the trial court erred when it only sentenced Benoit to life in prison, when Benoit should have received the chair. Unless . . . You don't suppose . . . ? Is that what they're planning to put in >>Good Lord! Choke!<< From the Hip II?
BOB INGERSOLL, public defender, comic fan, and legal analyst wants to apologize to my readers. I spent an entire column recounting the events of From the Hip under the bogus rationale that, "Misery loves company." I mean, think about it for a second: what do you get if you share your misery with a lot of company? A lot of miserable company, that's what. And who wants to spend his time with a bunch of miserable people?
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