American Law – A System of Justice or Oppression?

Is justice being erased in the United States?

The American legal system is in grave danger of becoming a system of oppression used by the powerful against the weak.  When our courts are no longer accessible by the average person, when there is no mechanism for payment of lawyers who enforce the rights of those without economic or political power, when funds to legal services programs are cut or abolished, when laws are written that increase the procedural burdens and burdens of proof required when the average person challenges the wealthy and powerful, when the right to trial by jury is consistently nullified by boilerplate contract language, when judges are increasingly selected for their ideology and political alliance rather than their jurisprudence and temperament, when the legislature and corporate-drawn contracts of adhesion take away the right of the average person to use our courts, when the legislature passes laws prohibiting working-class people from bringing their often modest claims as a class-action lawsuits in our courts and forces them into expensive individual arbitrations, when the legislative and executive branches of our government seek oversight of our courts and underfund our courts to a degree that renders them incapable of performing their function in our democracy, you no longer have a system of justice, but a system of oppression wherein the law is used as a weapon against the weak.

Sadly, I see all of these things happening at ever-accelerating rate, based upon a fictional claim that the system is broken and over-run with frivolous claims by greedy consumers and their lawyers.  If one looks at how our civil ccourts are actually utilized, the falsehood of these claims becomes readily apparent.  Consider that, for the week of March 3 – 12, 2017, there were 126 civil cases filed in the Leon County Florida Civil Courts. Here is the breakdown of those cases by type:

Case type                                                              Number Filed
Auto Accident                                                                  6
Debt Collection                                                               60
Residential Foreclosure                                                10
Premises Negligence                                                      1
Medical Malpractice                                                       1
Discrimination                                                                4
Products Liability                                                           1
Inmate lawsuit                                                                6
Residential Eviction                                                      20
Misc Other                                                                       9

Of the cases filed last week listed above, 48 were filed in small claims court, which is supposed to be “the people’s court” due to relaxed pleading standards deigned to allow a less formal process than Courts that deal with higher dollar or more complex cases.  Sadly, small claims courts are increasingly the place where the wealthy and powerful bring cases filed by their lawyers against poor people who in the vast majority of cases have no access to lawyers.  Of those 48 small claims cases filed last week in my local courts, 40 of those lawsuits were not claims brought by individuals, but were filed by companies who purchase defaulted debt, usually credit card debt, and were suing individuals and families.  Most interesting, of those 40 cases, 20 were filed by a single company, Midland Funding, a company who has never once been willing to go to trial in any of the cases where I’ve appeared on behalf of a consumer who they were suing.  Unfortunately, most consumers are not able to secure representation by a lawyer and so they either settle or the court enters a default judgment when the consumer fails to show up for court.

Politicians, supported by corporate donations, are quick to raise a cry of alarm that we are experiencing an epidemic of lawsuits. They say tort lawsuits are out of control, but is this claim in any way reflected in the numbers we find above?  Do we really need to limit medical malpractice lawsuits when they constitute less than one percent of all the lawsuits filed? Why do debt collection lawsuits, evictions, and foreclosures constitute 75 percent of our civil cases? Where is the epidemic really? Where is reform really needed?

I fear that justice is about to become much more elusive in our legal system. There are a number of new laws being considered at both the federal and state levels that will only increase the one-sided nature of our legal system.  Most alarming to me is the current federal legislation entitled “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act” that is purposefully designed to kill class action lawsuits. The American Bar Association and a large number of consumer rights groups have issued statements opposing the law. Consumer claims are often unfeasible when brought individually due to the small amounts of damages that often represent huge profits for the dishonest business when spread over thousands of customers.  I understand that some people either don’t understand or are philosophically opposed to class action lawsuits, but no other mechanism is as important or as potent for maintaining integrity in our marketplace as the class action lawsuit.    Class action lawsuits are going to be even more important in an era of reduced government oversight as we see the disappearance of important consumer protection laws such as Dodd-Frank, and the restraint, if not outright elimination, of administrative watchdogs such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Another misguided bill is the “Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act” which is aimed at lawyers representing individuals and families, and would require federal judges to impose sanctions in the form of costs and attorney fees against lawyers who file lawsuits that are deemed “frivolous” by the court.  Such a law would have a chilling effect upon the development of new legal theories or reinterpretation of the law.  It’s also notable that this law would not impose any risk for the lawyers on the other side who raise frivolous defenses.

Lastly, and I admit self-interest here, we are quickly reaching a point where lawyers like me who seek to protect the rights of individuals and families are going to be unable to continue our work. Ending class-actions, capping attorney fees, forced arbitration, complex and onerous pre-suit notice requirements, under-funded courts that charge excessive filing fees, making consumer lawyers vulnerable to one-sided sanctions, and the repeal of consumer protection laws will effectively put me, and many of my colleagues, out of business.  I know there are some who will celebrate getting rid of lawyers with a cheer of “kill all the lawyers”, ignorant of the roots of that statement and what an America without lawyers representing individuals and families will look like.  As for me, it’s a frightening future, one devoid of real opportunities for justice, where the masses live their lives subject to the whims and will of their corporate overlords.  We will no longer have a justice system; our legal system will be nothing more than a system that maintains the current power relationships in our society.  It will be a system of oppression.

Reality Distortion Field

They say that when Apple was developing the Macintosh computer, the engineers took the term “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF), from Star Trek, and used it to describe the ability of Steve Jobs to convince himself and others to believe almost anything and deny reality.  It was said that Jobs would routinely succeed in using charm, charisma, bravado, marketing, appeasement and persistence to overcome his team member’s denial or belief in the truth. They also said that Jobs would use the RDF to routinely adopt other people’s ideas that he would claim as his own after having rejected the very same idea when suggested by a team member a week earlier. Jobs’s reality distortion field wasn’t limited to his professional life. For example, Jobs appalled many around him when he persistently denied reality by refusing to recognize his own daughter, Lisa, despite a paternity test that showed more than a 96% change that he was the father.

The effect of RDF on the Macintosh design team was both positive and negative.  Jobs’ refusal to accept reality allowed him to get the team to push through barriers and accomplish things they thought were impossible. The Macintosh team created an amazing cutting-edge machine, and despite the insanity of the experience, most say it was one of their proudest accomplishments.  On the other hand, the Macintosh team missed development deadlines by more than a year, which gave IBM time to establish itself and Microsoft as the dominant players in the business personal computer market.  Apple has never really recovered this market loss.  This is one of the reasons that to this day people debate whether Macintosh was a commercial failure or success.  The human cost to Apple and Jobs was huge. Jobs’ behavior drove off many talented engineers and employees who quit and went to work for Apple’s competition.  Ultimately, due to his behavior, Jobs ended up out of the company that he co-founded.  Granted, he would return to help rescue the company a decade later, but it is said that he returned more mature and seasoned, and was more subdued in his leadership.

I think about this tendency to deny reality when I read the news accounts that have been coming out of the Trump White House.  I’m left wondering how similar was Steve Jobs during that time to Donald Trump today?  I read in the news that Donald Trump is now accusing President Obama of bugging his campaign office, but isn’t offering any evidence.  There was the whole fiasco regarding the crowd size at his inauguration in which his staff told reporters that they were putting forth “alternative facts”. There was the media statement last week that he believes the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents is being done by Democrats to harm him, again with no evidence to support the statement.  There is the denial of human-induced climate change despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting it. Indeed, it’s been one episode of reality distortion after another since he took office just over a month ago. The question is where does this take us? Will Trump break through barriers to create a new future for America that wasn’t previously thought possible? I’m skeptical because I don’t see the passion to create in Trump that existed in Jobs.  On the other hand, will he alienate our allies and his supporters, produce little, and ultimately leave us with an expensive and deleterious outcome?

Of course, it’s not just inventors and populist politicians who are subject to reality distortion.  I think people do it all the time, albeit to much lesser degrees.  As a lawyer I spend a lot time trying to sort fact from fiction, and it’s amazing how often honest people manage to distort reality in order to avoid an unpleasant or inconvenient truth.  The important difference between most people and people such as Trump and Jobs is that when confronted with evidence to the contrary, most people accept reality.

 

You Shall Not Oppress The Stranger: My Call for Respect and Dignity for Transgendered People

I don’t know what it’s like to be a transgendered person.  I’ve always felt that my body and gender are one and the same and simply who I am.  That’s not true for everyone, which I think some people view as suspect since they’ve never experienced a disconnect between their body and gender.

I’m certainly no expert on this subject.  When the terms cis-male came up in a recent conversation I had to ask one of my friends what that meant (a cis-male is a non-transgendered male). However, I have encountered a few transgendered people and I’ve gotten some glimpses into their lives that have shaped my thoughts.

My first memory of encountering a transgendered person was almost 20 years ago when I was working nights as an Emergency Room volunteer at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.  A biological male dressed in women’s clothing was brought in after having been physically attacked when leaving a bar.  The beating was vicious.  The police brought him in, but it was clear to me that they had no interest in finding the people who attacked this person. I remember one of the nurses making a derogatory statement about how he should have expected the beating. I remember that when the man was discharged, nobody offered him fresh clothes and nobody came to pick him up and carry him home.  He was left to walk out through the waiting room with his bandaged face and wearing the blood stained and torn dress he’d been wearing when attacked.

A short time later, a woman who was transitioning to being male came to work at the computer center where I worked during the evenings while I was in school. The way I understood the story, he was a state employee who worked as a computer programmer.  None of the state agencies wanted him and our director had offered him a position.  He wasn’t allowed to work in the cube farm with the other programmers, but was kept isolated in a small windowless former storage room.

My next encounter with a transgendered person was when I represented a young effeminate black teenager who had been expelled from the Leon County school system after getting into a conflict with his school principal over his wearing skirts to school. The young man was in foster care, living in a group home, because his mother wouldn’t stop beating him with a belt in order to stop him from being such a sissy.

When people discuss the rights and protections of transgendered people, I think of the transgendered people I’ve known, the difficulties they’ve faced, and the harms they’ve suffered.  As a result, I am absolutely certain in the moral righteousness of providing whatever legal protections are necessary to allow transgendered people to live their lives with dignity and without fear of harm or persecution.  The bathroom issue gets no traction with me.  To limit someone’s bathroom choice based upon their birth gender, rather than the gender in which they live their life, is not rooted in protection for anyone, but in a denial of the reality of transgender issues and the hardships transgendered people face.  Simply put, it’s rooted in ignorance and xenophobia.

Throughout history people have attacked those who live outside the mainstream. Those who are different are so often used as the scapegoats upon which society focuses its fears and prejudices.  Transgendered people are the proverbial strangers in the mainstream where most of us exist, which makes it sadly ironic that so many who seek to oppress and reject them claim to be religious people. Repeatedly, the Bible tells its readers not to oppress the stranger, but to protect the stranger.  Not oppressing the stranger is the most repeated Biblical commandment. It is the central message of Western religious thought. Refusing someone the right to use the bathroom consistent with their identity is oppression, even more so when one is talking about school children.  Sadly, those who hold power in the United States today have missed this fundamental lesson of religious and historical morality and are using their power to incite hatred and abuse upon the most vulnerable members of our society.

 

Happiness in An Unhappy Profession

Associate Attorney is the Most Unhappy Occupation

I’m a happy person working in a profession that includes what some have called the most unhappy job in America.  According to an article published on the Above The Law legal blog, the most unhappy job in America is associate attorney.  To be fair, I’m not now, nor have I ever been, an associate attorney.  An associate attorney is a lawyer who works in a law firm as an employee.  The closest I’ve ever come is the almost two years I spent working as an assistant public defender immediately after law school. I loved the Public Defender’s Office.  The work was intense, I was in court every single day, and my co-workers were great.

I really love being a lawyer despite what the researchers say.  Sure, it’s a lot of difficult hard work. Being a self-employed lawyer is risky with lots of ups and downs.  Sometimes it’s heartbreaking because I don’t always win and I argue from the heart.  It always hurts when a judge or a jury rejects an argument that I’ve spent days researching and crafting. I’ve had to learn to pick myself up, shake off the damage, and keep going.

I’m not wealthy, and my income is very modest compared to most lawyers, but I don’t feel at all impoverished. Instead, I feel incredibly fortunate.  I get to work at home a lot where I sit at my desk in shorts and a comfortable shirt with my dog at my feet and my cat occasionally interrupting me with a jog across my keyboard.  I get to work with my wife, who challenges and supports me in every way.  I chose my clients and the cases on which I want to work.   I have complete control over the tools I use from the pens we buy for the office to the software we use.  I even get to choose my working hours and I can take off as much time off as I’d like and can afford.

I don’t really understand being unhappy as a lawyer because I find what we do to be so incredibly interesting.  Legal cases are stories, often imperfect, always fascinating, and always teaching us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.   When I step into a courtroom on behalf of a client, I am privileged to tell my client’s story.  Each case gives me an opportunity to change someone’s life, and sometimes I can even change the rules by which we all play.  I’ve gotten to stand next to people who came to me feeling that no one was listening or cared and I’ve shown my clients that they have a voice and are worthy of respect.  Sometimes I can even persuade people to care about someone they’d overlooked.  My arguments don’t always work, but sometimes, when I’m in the right court, with the right facts, and the right argument, I get to change the world.  To do that once in your life is amazing, but to get the opportunity to do that every single day, is a priceless gift to me.

Public Interest Lawyers Work Hard, But Have the Highest Happiness Rankings

According to the New York Times, another study indicates that the happiest lawyers are public interest lawyers, those at the lowest end of the lawyer pay scale. Public interest lawyers make only a fraction of the earnings of firm associates, and are paupers compared to firm partners, but they’re the happiest of all lawyers.  Clearly, more money isn’t the key. The article speculates that the reason for this difference in happiness is:

The problem with the more prestigious jobs, said Mr. Krieger, is that they do not provide feelings of competence, autonomy or connection to others — three pillars of self-determination theory, the psychological model of human happiness on which the study was based. Public-service jobs do.”

I think there is truth to this speculation. I love the opportunities for self-determination and autonomy that my work provides.  Most valuable of all to me is the connection my work creates for me with my clients, other lawyers, the judges before whom I practice, and the community in which I live.

I didn’t consciously chose the pathway to happiness when I started my legal career.  My life is really a product of happy circumstance combined with what I often see as a somewhat selfish tendency to choose experience over monetary benefit.  I would rather scrape by in a job that I feel makes a difference, than do unfulfilling work that pays a lot of money.  I am also aware that I’m very fortunate because I get to make that choice. So far, I’m happy with the outcome, so I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing.

 

 

Lessons I Learned As a Synagogue President That Might Help Donald Trump

“Good” v. “Bad” Leaders

I am an unlikely synagogue president and Donald Trump is an unlikely American President.  Prior to becoming president of my small lay-led shul a little over a year ago, I was only marginally involved.  I didn’t attend services regularly and I wasn’t active with any committees or organizations. Prior to his campaign and election as president, Donald Trump had no involvement in government.  Like Donald Trump, I came into office as an outsider seeking to create change.

My transition into the role as synagogue president was difficult at first and often bumpy. For a while it seemed like constant conflict. I know that some people had serious concerns that I was going to single-handedly destroy the Congregation through changes that I felt were necessary for ensuring our survival.  As I watch Donald Trump’s first few days in office, I think of the mistakes I made and the lessons I’ve learned. Like Trump I’ve run a business, but leading a synagogue, like leading a nation, is a completely different experience. I don’t know who is advising Trump but if I were asked what advice I would give him, here is what I would say:

  • Go Slowly – You’re the new kid on the block. It’s very tempting to want to change everything at once, but change often frightens people. To accept your leadership through change, people have to trust you, and that trust has to be earned. Start will small low-risk changes, then move onto the bigger projects.  Unless there is an immediate crisis that cannot wait, take the time to build consensus and to carefully examine your ideas as you gain institutional knowledge.
  • Find Your Mentors – Seek out those who have been around a while and seek their guidance. Their advice can save you a lot of work and heartache since they know how things work, how to get things done, and what hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Ignore the hateful comments – Nothing good comes from a leader responding to hateful statements. Remember, you hold the power that comes with your office, the people criticizing you don’t have that power. A rude response just makes the leader look like a bully. You have to accept that any time you occupy a leadership position people are going to sometimes disagree with you.  That disagreement is sometimes expressed in angry hateful ways.  You have to be above it, but it’s not always easy.
  • Throw your opponents a bone every now and then – There will always be people who oppose your vison and ideas. Their input is valuable because they’re often the first to see the weaknesses in a proposed plan of action or change. Don’t fight them on everything. Give them a place at the table and an opportunity to contribute.  Besides, you may need their goodwill someday.  Midterm elections can drastically change the balance of power and the good will you build today can be essential to making any progress later.
  • Rules Are Your Friend – Complying with rules that sometimes seem like outdated impediments to implementing your vision can be frustrating, but is absolutely necessary. As a leader, you have to do all you can to protect the organization and the integrity of the office you hold. If you want to lead with any legitimate authority, the rules have to govern you even more than the people you lead.  Following the rules communicates that you are not a tyrant, but an ethical and principled leader.  I frequently remind my board: “Principles before personalities”.
  • Beware the late-night email – I’ve learned that if I get an email from a board member or congregant that is sent after 10pm at night it’s probably a long angry message peppered with insults. These emails can be hurtful. Fortunately, I don’t get many of these anymore, but when I do, I’ve learned to take a deep breath and under no circumstances do I send my own late-night angry response.  I usually give it a day or so and then I either call the person or I invite them to coffee to discuss their upset. So far, I’ve only had one person with whom I couldn’t improve things by sitting down and talking.
  • It’s Not About You – Things are going to happen that are out of your control or that you didn’t anticipate. You will often get the blame or the credit for these events.  Share the credit, shoulder the blame, and move on.  You’re only a temporary occupant of an office that will continue long after your term ends.

Monday Morning Spirit Lift!

Lots of people have been feeling down lately.  Maybe their team lost a big game in a stunning upset, or the news coming out of DC has got them down.  Instead of the regular blog post, this week I offer you a short video that I hope will make you smile and forget your troubles for a moment.  I invite you to take a walk in the woods with my dog, Banjo. In his world, there is nothing better than a walk in the forest on a sunny day.

A Flawed Democracy

We’re in jeopardy of losing our democracy.  This past week the Democracy Index, an international ranking of the health of democracy in world’s nations,  downgraded the United States from a “Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy”.  University researchers recently concluded in a study that the United States is an oligarchy, that is we’re dominated by the rich and the average person lacks meaningful political power. Despite all of our pledges, flag waving, verbal accolades regarding the wonders of democracy, and declarations of defending freedom to the death, American democracy is on the ropes.  No, Donald Trump is not the cause.  He may be a symptom, but there is plenty of reason to be concerned about American democracy apart from Donald Trump’s authoritarian fascism.

Our government is a system of checks and balances between the three branches: the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive.  In theory, no branch is greater than the other and each operates to keep the other in check.  Only the legislative branch is subject to direct election on the federal level, although on a state level both the judiciary and the executive may also be directly elected.  The federal judiciary is insulated from the electoral process by virtue of lifetime appointment of federal judges by the Executive and confirmation by the legislative branches.

However, recent years have witnessed an accelerating decline of this system of checks and balances. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of what I call the “super legislature”.  Certainly, there has been a lot of scrutiny paid to the use of Executive Orders by the President in the face of congressional gridlock, but if you pay attention to what’s happening at the state level, and then look back at the federal level, you’ll see that it’s not the presidency with which we need to be concerned. It’s the legislative branch, which have become increasingly single party nationally and whose members dominated by big money, where we see the most blatant attempts to overturn our system of checks and balances.

For example, according to the Florida Bar News, there is currently a bill in the Florida legislature, introduced by Republican Julio Gonzalez, to amend the Florida Constitution to allow the Florida legislature to overturn any Florida Supreme Court decision that rules any law to be unconstitutional.  This bill, should it become law, would remove the Florida Supreme Court from its traditional role of having the final say regarding the Constitutionality of our laws.  In other words, the legislature, not the Courts, would get to review the constitutionality of the laws it passes.

In North Carolina, the Republican dominated legislature recently passed laws severely restricting the power of the Governor following the election of a Democrat to that office.  Fortunately, this law was struck down by the Courts. However, I suspect that the North Carolina legislature will engage in a war of obstruction, similar to what President Obama experienced, designed to thwart the will of the voters by making it impossible for the Governor to effectively govern.

On the Federal level we have witnessed years of obstruction culminating in the absolute refusal of Republican Senators to hold a hearing on President Obama’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. This refusal was not based upon an objection to the nominee, but as a mechanism to prevent the President from performing his duties.

I see this happening in other areas too.  For example, through binding consumer arbitration clauses, the legislature has removed jurisdiction from our courts for the majority of claims arising from consumer transactions with banks, credit card companies, car dealerships, employment contracts, etc.  The profound impact of this was recently seen when the lawsuits of consumers who were defrauded by fake accounts created by Wells Fargo found themselves unable to sue due to arbitration clauses in their account contracts and a federal statute called the Federal Arbitration Act.

I suspect that underlying all of this is a fundamental nationwide deficit of civics education.  According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of our government.  This lack of even the most basic civics education and understanding leaves voters vulnerable to misinformation during elections and campaigns such as when an ad claims that a presidential candidate is going to raise or lower taxes. (Taxing and spending is controlled by Congress).  Indeed, it often appears to me that most voters ignore candidates for all offices except president, whom they seem to believe is some sort of temporary all-powerful king.

I don’t know how to solve this problem.  It’s always seemed to me that patriotism should demand more than flag waving. It should demand that we educate ourselves and our children regarding the structure of our government, the people we elect, and the work in which our politicians and bureaucrats are engaged.  True patriotism should demand more than claim that all politicians are crooks, because they’re not.  I ran for office a few years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. While I did not agree with the ideas of some of the candidates, I found the majority to be decent people who were interested in the issues and improving the lives of citizens.   Money in politics is certainly a problem, but voter ignorance and apathy is an even bigger problem.  Additionally, partisan voters, who have given over their minds in exchange for allegiance to a political party that they follow like lemmings, make campaigning based upon ideas extremely difficult, because so many minds are absolutely closed and people vote blindly according to party.

In closing, I want to say that whatever the problems we have in our system of government, we need to be careful and to stay true to democratic principles above all else.  If we’re not careful, we can lose this democracy, and I believe that what comes next will be most unpleasant.

The Wind Beneath My Wings At the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award

It was too late when I realized that the suit I’d chosen to wear had a hole in the bottom of the left pocket rendering the pocket useless. I only own 3 suits and they’re all several years old and coordinated with the pair of brown wing-tip dress shoes that constitute my only pair of dress shoes. I’d already discarded one dress shirt as being too threadbare which cost me time and I’d spent a lot of time trying to find the new tie I wanted to wear that suddenly went missing after being in my hand. I eventually located the new tie hiding out in my sock drawer with no idea how it got there. My wife was handing me a collection of things she wanted me to carry since she had no pockets at all. Her cell phone, a lipstick, her ID in a little plastic case, her keys,… it turned out to be a lot of stuff.  I struggled to find places for all the items. My working pocket bulged and I feared that I would soon have no working pockets at all. I also wondered when my wife decided that my role in life was to be a pack mule?

Barbara Takes My Picture on the Steps of the Florida Supreme Court

We were headed to the Florida Supreme Court for a ceremony in which I was one of couple dozen lawyers who were being honored for our pro bono work.  Thanks to a nomination by Legal Services of North Florida, I was to receive the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award for the Second Judicial Circuit. The entire Florida Supreme Court, less one Justice who was recovering from surgery, would be there along with the president of the Florida Bar.  This was my first time inside the Florida Supreme Court and one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received.  My close friend, James Cook, who is one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known, won the award last year, and the list of previous recipients included the names of several other friends and noted lawyers for whom I have great respect and admiration.

I was very honored to receive the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award for the Second Judicial Circuit

The award ceremony was very nice.  It was dignified without being stale.  The presentation of awards to deserving recipients was punctuated by heartfelt sincere speeches on the importance of pro bono work that held my attention without going on too long or becoming too preachy.  I sat with the other award recipients on cushioned benches inside the well, the area between the railing that separates the spectators’ gallery and the bench where the Judges sit.  When the time came for me to receive my award, they called my name and I walked to the podium where I was presented with a large certificate by the Florida Bar president.  He said some nice words to me, and then shook my hand while a photographer took our photo. As I posed for the photographer I could see my wife, Barbara, camera in hand, directly behind him. As previously instructed by the organizers, I went and stood in front of the bench where the Supreme Court Justices were sitting and waited while they presented the other awards. I breathed a sigh of relief that I managed to get through the process without stumbling or forgetting to zip up my pants.

After the ceremony, there was a photo session with all the award recipients that made me feel a bit like a rock star. There were big complex looking cameras wielded by serious looking photographers. There was Barbara too, with my little Olympus, making sure she documented the experience for me. When everyone was done taking pictures, I joined the crowd of guests in the rotunda area where an incredible reception awaited.  I was especially delighted to see that had those little spanakopita bites that are a favorite of mine. Barbara was waiting for me there and proudly introduced me to a gentleman from St. Petersburg, Florida as her award-winning husband.

Later that night, when the festivities were finished and the routine quiet of our lives had once again returned, I thought about the experience of winning this award. It occurred me that the pro bono cases for which I was honored weren’t only my sacrifice.  In every single one of those cases, my wife Barbara, was by my side every single step of the way. She proofread pleadings, helped me strategize, attended Court hearings with me, encouraged me when I was discouraged.  It’s important to note that although they give you awards for the cases you win, there were other pro bono cases we’ve done that we didn’t win, yet she was always there right by my side.  Losing for me is devastating, but she helps me pick myself up every time. She could have objected to my pro bono work since it takes me away from the money-making cases that we depend upon and there have been many times when we’ve had to pinch pennies to get through.  Contrary to what the insurance companies and their paid-for politicians tell you, the vast majority of trial lawyers are not millionaires.  Most of us live precarious lives, investing our own money while taking on other people’s causes as our own, hoping for a fair judge or jury and the skill to navigate the procedural hurtles required to be allowed to tell our clients’ stories.  Such a life wouldn’t be possible for me without the unwavering support of my wife, Barbara, who remains confident in me even when I start to doubt myself.

I hope that I was able to honor my wife and the other women in my life by marching with 14,000 other people in support of women’s rights.

It occurred to me again on Saturday as I marched through the streets of Tallahassee for Women’s Rights in the rain, one person among a crowd of 14,000, how much I owe in my life to the women who have been part of it.  My wife, mother, mother-in-law, step-mother, sister-in-law, nieces, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, nurses, doctors, classmates, clients who trust me to be their lawyer,…the list is endless. So much of my passion for justice on behalf of working-class families comes from growing up in a female-led single parent home.  I’ve witnessed the struggles of the women in my life for equality and justice, and I know that while education and economic well-being provide some protection for women, the inequality never completely goes away.  I also know that I wouldn’t be who I am today, or able to do the things I’m able to do today, without the many women who have given me their love and support throughout my life.

I didn’t get to give a speech at the award ceremony, which was probably a good thing.  I don’t think that I could compete with the great words that were offered.  However, I do want to say something, and that’s thank you to my wife and all the other women who have supported me, trusted me, and helped me to pursue my dreams.  Words simply cannot express my respect and adoration for you all.

Anger on the Road to Fascism in America

I have a problem that’s pulling my focus away from work and decreasing my enjoyment of life. It has led me into non-productive arguments on Facebook and is  causing me to avoid people.  This problem has me rethinking whether or not I want continue to live in the United States, whether or I want to continue to practice law, whether I want to leave the State of Florida, and whether or not I want to disown some of my relatives.

My problem is a growing sense of anger and disgust with Donald Trump, the people who support him, and our current political situation. This is contrary to how I want to live my life.  I believe in tolerance, civil discourse, giving people a chance, forgiveness, and diversity in the broadest sense of the word, but I’m failing to live up to my ideals as the anger and disgust I feel grows each time I see a news article about Donald Trump’s latest tweet or press conference.  I feel like I’m living through a dystopian nightmare.  I am constantly reminding myself that it’s not my job to judge other people, it’s not my job to tell anyone how to think, and that the only person in this world over whom I have any control over is  me.

Donald Trump is merely the symbol of a democracy that I’m rapidly losing respect for and faith in.  I understand that some people don’t care for Hillary Clinton, but there were several ethical and qualified Republican and Democratic candidates from whom we could have chosen.  That a human being as ill-equipped, divisive, and offensive as Donald Trump would win the contest for the presidency, while losing the popular vote by millions, is appalling to me.  As the evidence mounts of Russian interference, Trump’s possible collaboration with the

Putin government makes this seem even less like an election and more like a military coup orchestrated by a foreign government designed to destabilize my country.  That Trump continues to refuse to disclose or divest himself from his business conflicts of interest while denouncing our own intelligence agencies and cozying up to Putin makes me even more suspicious that Trump is far less than loyal to our nation. Trump will likely ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives in defense of our country, and yet he is completely unwilling to undertake any personal sacrifice for the good of our nation.  It’s simply appalling.

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Trump would be counter-balanced by the other branches of government, but that seems less likely these days.  Statesmanship is lost in our current partisan system where the well-being of the nation is secondary to party loyalty.  Gerrymandering to ensure party control and to remove the accountability of elected representatives to the voters has given us State and Federal governments that are increasingly Republican dominated.  As voters, we ignore this and never question why, for instance, Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet our government is so Republican dominated that there is virtually no Democratic voice in our state government. We now see this happening at the Federal level as well.

I’m disgusted by the Republican refusal to honor the will of the voters on those increasingly rare occasions when a Democrat can win an election.  Republicans in Congress did all they could to prevent President Obama from being able to make progress on the issues voters twice elected him to address. Republicans stood by and tacitly condoned and exploited what were too often racist and bigoted attacks on President Obama, even calling into question his birth and religion.  Most egregiously, they refused to even consider his nominee for Supreme Court Justice, a moderate who was well qualified for the appointment.

Refusal to allow elected Democrats to govern is not limited to our Federal government. Compromise is gone. Obstructionism at all costs is now part of the Republican play book. The North Carolina legislature, a Republican dominated body, passed laws, signed by the outgoing defeated Republican governor, restricting the powers of the governor’s office upon the election of Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Fortunately, this effort was blocked by the Courts on constitutional grounds, but I doubt that the North Carolina legislature will slow down one bit in their efforts to make him as ineffective as possible.  I don’t think we’re even close to seeing the end of this. The Republican mantra of the day seems to be “the will of the voters be dammed, party above all else”.

The costs of this partisan anger hardly seem to matter to anyone.  We’re now seeing both Trump and Congress rushing full-speed into a repeal of the Affordable Care Act regardless of the consequences on vulnerable Americans or the healthcare institutions that serve our communities. We hear nothing substantive about what comes after the repeal other than one of Trump’s bullshit promises that it’ll be great and we’ll love it.  Do I even need

Giant Taxpayer Funded Boondoggle – Wall with Mexico

to mention that mother-of-all government boondoggles, Trump’s promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which we are now being told we have to pay for out of our tax dollars that are too limited to pay for good schools, good infrastructure, or health care.

This is not to say that I give the Democrats a pass on our current situation.  For too long Democrats have been nothing more than “Republican-light”.  The DNC has ignored the strong populist support for candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while backing establishment candidates who offer little in the way of meaningful change. Hillary Clinton might have been a historic candidate by virtue of her gender, but her policy ideas rarely drifted far from the safe mainline script of business-as-usual.  Locally, I would point to Bill Montford and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who were both elected as Democrats.  Vasalinda, who left office in November, left the Democratic party and declared her support of Trump in the recent election.  Perhaps her move is more honest than Montford, who promotes a good-ole-boy persona while accepting massive campaign donations from corporate special interest groups and is more of a closet Republican than a progressive Democrat. Montford has remained almost silent about the economic well-being of people in Florida while voting in support of anti-consumer measures such as legislation that carved out exemptions for dishonest car dealers and restricted the ability of injured individuals and families to sue dishonest dealerships under Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

This partisanship and vile political discourse are paralyzing our government and creating very hostile divisions among us.  I recently had dinner with a relative whose eyes burned with fury as she parroted fake news stories to denigrate all Democrats, including me and friends of hers.  Her anger seemed to obliterate all the good memories and acts of kindness in those relationships. Many of us seem to be falling prey to this anger and hostility. Several people on different ends of the political spectrum have told me that they are withdrawing from social groups to avoid dealing with the growing political anger.  For the first time in 16 years, I’m contemplating not going to Sun-n-Fun because I simply don’t want to hear the political discussions and opinions that sometimes get shared there. I should be better than this, but it’s difficult.  Facebook has become a loathsome place to visit due to the never-ending feed of people sharing angry political posts and fake news stories that do nothing other than feed the growing anger.  I’m tired and worn out by all this, but I don’t see it ending.  I see us going down the very dark road of fascism and it’s a journey that I really don’t want to take.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Wife Finds a Big Hole

Things have been busy since returning to work after News Years.  Until I can write some new content, here is a piece that I wrote in 2005. 

Last week my wife came in from a walk around the neighborhood. She was all excited and wanted me to come with her to look at a giant hole the city people had dug in the middle of the road in our development. Being the kind and thoughtful spouse that I am, while I also knowing that resistance is futile, I put on my coat and went with her.

Now I must admit, what she showed me wasn’t exactly your ordinary run-of-the-mill hole in the road. This thing was pretty darn impressive. It was as wide as the two-lane road, and twice as long. However, its most impressive characteristic was its depth. I’ll bet it went down 25 feet. Let me tell you, looking down into a 25 foot deep muddy hole is pretty neat.

My wife then explained to me that the hole was dug in order to repair the broken sewer line. Apparently, she had interrogated one of the workers who was standing around looking into the hole. I concluded that the interrogation had been rather thorough since she knew when the hole was dug, who dug it, why they dug it, that they had severed the power line while digging the hole, who was down in the hole, and that they would have the hole filled in by morning.

As we were walking back to the house, discussing some of the big holes we’ve encountered in our lives, my wife commented that she’d like to see what I would write in my blog about the hole. I told her that I would think about it, but wasn’t sure what one can write about big temporary sewer holes.

Actually, as I thought about the issue I came to realize there’s a lot to say about sewer holes. Consider that, of all the issues of importance to society, sewage is quite possibly one of the least controversial. I mean, you never hear the conservatives complain about those darn liberals and their public sewer systems. Sewage crosses political boundaries and sewers are used equally by both Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and even Libertarians. You never hear of a government bureaucrat pledging to remove the fiscal waste of waste removal. Yes, we all like sewers, and my guess is that most of us would immediately petition the government if our sewers were to stop working.

When I was working as a nurse I got to see some really impressive technological advances in healthcare, but no modern invention has probably prevented more death and disease than the modern sewage system. Indeed, I would imagine the typical American city would be inhabitable without the big stinky pipes running under our streets. Yes, sewers are quite possible the strongest connectors we have in our modern society, they provide a hidden but indispensable connection between us all. So when it seems like it’s impossible to find common ground with someone, just remember, they probably share your interest in modern sewer system, so don’t hesitate to find a big hole to share with him or her.