Saturday, July 21, 2007

Memories

I had an article printed in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune last week. It was motivated by Cass County being one of the counties I cover in my job. Going to Logansport was a journey back through time for me. I lived there in the 1950's and attended a couple years of elementary school and then the 7th grade before moving to California.

I spent part of one afternoon driving around Logansport to see the various landmarks of my youth there - the houses we'd lived in, the schools I went to, the library, the parks, downtown. The most significant quality that stands out from those years was the freedom children of that era had. My two cousins and I are all within one year of each other in age. We had bikes which we named Red Bullet, Green Bullet and Blue Bullet (we were nothing if not creative!) During summer vacations, we would be up early and off on adventures on the Bullets. We ranged far and wide - to the parks and down to the river, through the alleys and across town to the library.

Parents of our mothers and father's generation didn't believe it was their responsibility to entertain their children so we were mostly left to our own devices. We owned a television set and sometimes at night, we sat around with the adults and watched (although the only program that comes to mind is The Hit Parade) but what kid would want to be stuck inside watching t.v. during the day with the great world of adventure outdoors?

We were actually quite interested in science in an unsupervised kind of way. One corner of the wide front porch was dedicated to our science projects. It held various shapes and sizes of jars containing various and sundry specimens. For instance, we were curious about all the stages of caterpillar metamorphosis. Some jars held the caterpillars themselves - different and interestingly colored, which we hoped to watch spin their cocoons. Some jars had just the cocoons, waiting to hatch into butterflies. We had bowls of tadpole and pollywogs which we monitored faithfully, counting the new little legs, until the full-blown frogs and toads emerged. We had ant farms and jars of lightning bugs and pails of minnows and crawdads.

Sometimes we lost interest and our specimens died and the porch got to looking (and smelling) so junky that our mothers emptied out the buckets and bowls of dead minnows and fireflies. I realize that kids today have access to the marvels of television. On the nature channels, through the miracle of time-lapse photography, children can see the life of a butterfly from start to finish. They can watch as tadpoles evolve in a matter of minutes. All of that is much more efficient in terms of learning than our frequently-failed real life experiments. But, still, I wonder if there isn't something more awe-inspiring about the hands-on approach. I can see us now, three little girls, crowded around a container on a wide, over-hanging porch watching the slow development of a tadpole into a frog, a pollywog into a toad.

We collected other things too. We loved the cinder alleys in Logansport (cinder because most of the homes then were heated by coal, as ours were). We loved those alleys because they contained trash and what is trash to adults can certainly be treasure to children. For example, we snagged up old magazines to cut out pictures for our scrapbooks. (These scrapbooks were voluminous chronicles of the lives we hoped to live someday and were filled with lovely homes and gorgeous furniture, handsome husbands and beautiful wives (us) and precious children and adorable dogs and cats). Once, I remember, we were lucky enough to find a cache of love letters, from which we read the juicy parts aloud to one another, giggling all the while. Other times, we found fish bowls or (slightly chipped) teapots or an old rug for our garage clubhouse (furnished with two old automobile seats). Back then, as I recall, the flowers most frequently seen along the alleys were Hollyhocks and Bachelor Buttons.

We rode to the library and came home with bike baskets full of books. Reading, we would while away long summer afternoons on the front porch. The library gave out small orange-covered notebooks in which we wrote short book reports. At the end of the summer, we got stars and certificates for reading a certain number. My cousins and I were voracious readers and always read far more books than the required amount.

We went poking around down at the river and clambered up and down the ravines and scrambled across the creek at the far-away Dykeman's Park. We were fascinated by all aspects of our world, constantly on the look-out for slimy snails and sparkly rocks, odd-shaped sticks and bright-red cardinal feathers. (Would pre-teen girls today be interested in such things?)

Lacking chalk, we scratched out hopscotch games on the sidewalk with jagged rocks. On Saturdays, the folks gave us a quarter a piece to go to the movies. Ten cents to get in and a nickel a piece for a Coke, a bag of popcorn and a box of Good 'n' Plenty. If we were very lucky, they gave us enough extra for a chocolate soda at the Blue Front Drug Store afterwards. If one of the adults gave us a dime, we'd walk down to the corner store but instead of buying a 10 cent ice cream cone, we'd buy two 5 cent ones so we'd get two cones! At that same store, we could get a flavored Coke for a nickel - cherry for Shirley, vanilla for Reenie and chocolate for me. Flavored cokes disappeared for a long while about the time I got out of high school but I notice they're all the rage again now.

We would wander through the cemetery where I would tell my cousins long, drawn-out stories about the people under the interesting tombstones. It was never hard for me to close my eyes and imagine all details of the lives that matched each name.

I don't remember anyone asking us where we were going or when we would be coming home. I guess they figured we'd show up when we were hungry. It never seemed to occur to them that some predator might nab us (and why would they think that when they'd never heard of such a thing?) They also never seemed to worry that we'd get hit by a car or drown in the river. Those were idyllic years to be young and free. I feel sorry for today's children who must guarded and kept involved in supervised activities to keep them safe.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

On the Road Again

So far, I've driven back and forth to Lafayette every day for training in my new job for Indiana Legal Services. Trust me, this is not a commute you want to make on a daily basis. Wabash to Logansport isn't so bad now that it is all four-lane and bypasses the towns en route but Logansport on into Lafayette is a pure bitch. (I can just see the parents of Purdue students nodding their heads in agreement to this observation).

Highway 25 is two-lane and curvy. There are probably as many miles bound by single or double-yellow lines as there are that aren't. Lots of big trucks use Highway 25, especially lots of big tanker trucks, and the other day I was behind a hazardous waste-carrying truck that came to a complete stop at each railroad crossing (of which there are several although you probably wouldn't notice if you weren't behind a vehicle that came to a full stop at each one).

There are some tiny towns on 25 between Logansport and Lafayette, all with their slow-down speed limits. Not that I blame them. If I lived and had kids in Americus or Burrows, I'd want people to slow down too. But, as a commuter, having to constantly slow down and speed up gets frustrating. As it does when you get behind a slow-moving vehicle that you simply never have the opportunity to pass. It ambles on, going 45, seemingly oblivious to the stack of impatient drivers behind it.

You can tell the drivers who are either running late for work or simply have a nervous constitution. They swerve in and out, checking to see if the road ahead is free so they can pass. One kid was so frustrated, he passed three cars on a double-yellow line, evidently having decided that poking along was a fate, literally, worse than death. I know I was holding my breath to see if he would make it and I assume everyone else in our line was too.

There is one larger town on this route, Delphi. Delphi is the county seat of Carroll County and is typically midwestern with a town square facing the four sides of an impressive old Courthouse and some lovely homes bordering the downtown. I am always on a quest for good bakeries when I travel. There is a bakery on a main corner in Delphi called The Stone House that has great cookies and cinnamon rolls and pies. Something else I look for is a convenience store where you can get a fountain drink in styrofoam cups. I want styrofoam because I can nurse a 32-ounce pop for hours and the ice lasts that long in styrofoam. Seems like a small thing, I know, but there you go, it's important to me.

Another bad thing about this trip is that there aren't very many good radio stations available. I mean non-music radio because I haven't ever got into the newest rock and roll but after all these years, I've finally o.d.ed on classic rock. I think I can't stand listening to Stairway to Heaven one more time. And so, I have two choices. I can listen to National Public Radio. Sometimes NPR offers interesting political pieces but other times, their programming can put you to sleep right there on the road as you drive. I know I should care about the inflation in Zimbabwe but the fact is, I just don't. I can get one talk radio station on my trip - 1350 out of Kokomo. Depending on what time I'm on the road, I get to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Tim Heck, conservatives all and pretty much in lock step with one another on every issue. There is no hint that there could be another side to any story, no attempt at real discussion of an issue. Either believe them or you are an idiot, or worst a traitor to the United States! This Johnny-One-Note programming gets almost as boring as inflation in Zimbabwe or Stairway to Heaven for the umpty-millionth time. I think I am going to have to invest in satellite radio.

The upshot of this trip is that you flatly cannot predict exactly how long it is going to take you to reach Lafayette from Wabash. It can vary 15-20 minutes depending on traffic - anywhere from a hour and 15 minutes to a good hour and a half. Luckily, my boss, the managing attorney, is understanding about this, telling me to leave at my regular time and whatever time I get there is what time I get there. (He's traveled Highway 25 many times too).

Everyone at the office says the politicians have been promising to four-lane 25 between Lafayette and Logansport for many years. I tell them I can relate because of how long we had to wait for 24 to be widened from Wabash to Huntington. In a way, I'm surprised that we got our four-lane first because Lafayette is a bigger city with more political clout and then there is all that Purdue traffic. But still, we Lafayette commuters plod along, slowing down even more for towns and trucks and tractors.....

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Two-track System of Justice

* 23 American soldiers killed in Iraq so far in July 2007

I wrote last week about how Republicans have done a 180 degree turn on how they feel about the filibuster and up or down votes since they're the minority. They've done another 180 on the matter of the president commuting Scooter Libby's sentence. If this keeps up, they'll begin to feel like the girl in The Exorcist whose head went spinning crazily round and round.

You could google Republican quotes about the rule of law back during President Clinton's impeachment and get enough to fill an encyclopedia. Back then, the rule of law was sacred, it was revered. People, such as Clinton, who lied under oath were the worse sort of criminal, undermining the very foundation of our nation's greatness. Perjury was, to say the least, a high crime and misdemeanor, deserving of overturning an election and impeaching a president.

And, yet, how do the majority of Republican politicians feel about perjury and obstruction of justice now? The rule of law? Why, that little old thing, it's no big deal at all. Poor old Scooter, he's one our ours, you can't actually put someone like that in JAIL, not like all the lowlife's, like Martha Stewart and 1000's of other everyday perjurers!

And it seems like the tougher they were on regular people, the more sympathy they feel for Scooter. President Bush himself, for instance. As governor of Texas, he gave fewer pardons than any Texas governor since the 1940's. He turned down the appeals of 152 of 153 death row inmates, including those who were underage and retarded. He turned down Karla Faye Tucker, although everyone who had known her agreed that she'd made a spiritual transformation in prison and even the Pope begged him to reconsider. He not only said no but he mocked her plea for mercy to journalist, Tucker Carlson. He turned down defendants whose attorney's slept through most of their trial. "No excuses," said Bush, "the jury has spoken." It is reported that Bush spent less than 15 minutes each reading the appeal summaries before using his "DENIED" stamp. Fifteen minutes for a person's life, sounds about right, huh?

In addition, the Bush administration has argued before the Supreme Court for harsher mandatory minimum sentencing laws, not wanting the Judge to have any leeway to consider mitigating circumstances, such as defendant's past spotless record or the contributions he or she may have made to society prior to their crime. But, wait a minute, isn't that what the whole Scooter Libby commutation is supposed to be all about - Scooter's being such a good man and not deserving such a harsh sentence? Never mind.

Or consider Mitt Romney. He proudly flourishes his record as the only Massachusetts governor in history never to have given a pardon. He rejected Anthony Circosta's request for a pardon. Anthony Circosta shot another boy with a b-b gun when he was thirteen, a shot that never even broke the skin. Nevertheless, Circosta was charged with assault and convicted of a felony. Since then, he's worked his way through college, joined the National Guard and led a platoon in Iraq. In 2005, he asked Governor Romney for a pardon to be able to become a police officer back home in Massachusetts. But Romney said no, not once but twice. Because he's tough on crime, don't you know?

But how tough is Romney on Scooter? I'll tell you. The tears practically run down in face in describing how brutally the judicial system has mistreated this heroic figure. Give me a break.

And Rudy Giuliani? His whole reputation is based on Rudy the crime-fighter, Rudy the former prosecutor who brought safety back to the streets of New York, Rudy who never saw a criminal he didn't want to take down hard. Prosecutors live or die by the testimony of witnesses so probably Rudy takes perjury and obstruction of justice pretty seriously, wouldn't you think? Well, not exactly. Like the others, Rudy puts Scooter in a completely different category.

And all this is what rankles. It is this belief they seem to have that there is one legal system for all of us peons and another for the likes of them. It is that when its one of their group, they will ride rough-shod over rules they have assured us were hard and fast and couldn't be bent for the Anthony Circostas and Karla Faye Tuckers of the world.

And, in fact, the rules are very firm about commuting a sentence. There are three main elements: 1) the person must have served at least some of their prison sentence; 2) the person must have exhausted or given up any further appeals and 3) the person must have accepted responsibility for their crime and expressed remorse. Bush ignored all of these when it came to Scooter.

And while we're at it, let's get one thing clear. No, President Clinton did not do the same thing. Some of his pardon's may not have passed the smell test but he didn't pardon anyone whose testimony had a direct bearing on his vice-president or his own actions in a criminal case. He let Susan McDougal sit in jail, even though she was being punished by Kenneth Starr for not testifying that Clinton did something illegal, which she said wasn't true. If George W's commutation of Libby's sentence is to be compared to any others, it is his father's pardons of the Iran-Contra figures.

And although it has angered his base, of course, it had to be a commutation and not a pardon. A full pardon wipes out a conviction so the person pardoned then has no excuse not to testify before a congressional hearing and/or in a civil case brought against him. By contrast, a commutation preserves Libby's right to appeal and thus, his right to take the fifth amendment.

But do you have any doubt that George Bush will pardon Scooter Libby before he leaves office? Because I sure don't. I believe the fix has been in since day one. Libby's attorneys initially said they were going with the "Scooter as Scapegoat" defense and would be calling on the vice-president to testify. Suddenly and remarkably, however, they changed tactics and went with the much less effective "I just don't recall the sequence of events" defense. Scooter is found guilty and sentenced but no action is taken until it is determined that he has to report to prison even before his appeal. After that, Bush swings into action within hours. There is no way they are going to let Scooter sit in jail with all the time in the world to dredge his memory bank and possibly, give Patrick Fitzgerald a call to "revise" his testimony and cut a better deal for himself. But to preserve the fifth amendment option, he can't be pardoned. Therefore, he gets half a loaf now in the form of a commutation, and he'll get the other half in January of 2009 with a full pardon.

All their bases are covered. You have to give them credit for cleverness in an obstruction of justice-ish kind of way.

Monday, July 2, 2007

New Job

I have been working at my new job as the Indiana Legal Services Area V Pro Bono Plan Coordinator for two weeks now. Area V encompasses Wabash, Miami, Cass, Fulton, Howard and Tipton Counties so I will be on the road a lot, which is something I enjoy.

Indiana Legal Services exists to try to bring together low-income people who need access to the legal system with attorneys who volunteer to do pro bono (unpaid) work. Most of us know that poor people who have criminal charges filed against them have a constitutional right to a court-appointed public defender. What is not so well known is that the same is not true for citizens involved in civil proceedings (divorce, custody, landlord-tenant disputes, debt collection, etc.) Our society may not consider that poor people have a guaranteed right to a lawyer in civil cases, but it does acknowledge that it desirable for them to have equal access to justice under the law, and that is where Indiana Legal Services comes in.

The big difference is that public defenders in criminal cases are paid by government funds so it is relatively easy to ensure that there are enough attorneys to meet the needs of the justice system. Pro bono lawyers volunteer their services for free. Their only motivation is the belief that poor people deserve legal representation too and the satisfaction of knowing they've help make our legal system as fair as it can possibly be.

I will be going regularly to each of the courthouses in Area V to do intake interviews with low-income people who have legal problems, then sending a summary of their case back to the Lafayette office where an acceptance committee made up of staff attorneys will screen it to see if they meet the criteria for referral to a pro bono attorney. If it does, I will then try to match the case to a volunteer lawyer. That is the gist of what my job will consist of.

Anyone who has had any contact with the legal system knows that people who come to court without the assistance of an attorney face a real disadvantage. Attorneys know the laws, the forms, the process, the precedents to inform their argument. Lay people know none of these things. They simply have to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. And though judges may want to be sympathetic, their job is to rule based on who proved their case legally. Judges, I have found, are some of the most supportive about expanding the legal services program in their counties. Ideally, judges would prefer that all who come before them, either as plaintiff or defendant, are represented by an attorney so each has a fair shake at pleading their case.

I got involved in a situation rather like this once. I rented an apartment in Zionsville and when I wanted to move back to Wabash, I called the management to see what the penalty was for breaking my lease. I was told I could give them a 30-day notice and pay an additional month's rent for the month after I left which would give them a "cushion" in case the apartment didn't rent right away.

Exactly the opposite happened. The manager called to ask if I could leave earlier than my notice called for because they had tenants eager to move in. This I did. The new people were hauling their possessions in as I was carrying mine out.

I moved back to Wabash and thought everything was fine until I received a court notice informing me that I was being sued by the apartment complex for $650 in "refurbishment fees". I barreled off to court on my own, confident that I would win because I had done everything right.

But the representative of the complex brought in receipts that proved how much they'd spent on paint to repaint my apartment and carpet shampoo to shampoo the carpets and bug killer and sprays to deodorize and kill my germs. They also had job orders to prove how much they'd paid a crew of workers to do all these things.

"But," I protested to the judge, "I know none of this was done because the new tenants were bringing in their furniture before I was even moved out!"

The judge told me he frequently had these people in his court with the same kinds of cases. He said he believed me and he really hated to rule against me. He pointed out (to dirty looks from the representative for the complex) that the company owned a whole string of complexes in the Indianapolis area. They also owned warehouses full of paint and carpet cleaner and wrote their own "receipts". They also employed the maintenance crews and produced their own job orders. He said that legally, they had proven their case. I ended up having to pay them the additional $650.

I don't know if an attorney could have helped me in this particular situation but at least, they might have advised me that the apartment people had the case so well wired that I was wasting my time to drive all the way to Greenwood to appear in court.

There are laypeople who volunteer as advocates for low-income people in other areas but it is illegal to practice law without a license So no one can do what a lawyer does except a lawyer. Low income people who need legal assistance are dependent on the good will of volunteer attorneys.