Saturday, January 26, 2008

Attorneys

Having worked in law enforcement and the judicial system, I can't even estimate how many attorney jokes I have heard over the years. Often, it is the lawyers themselves who get the biggest kick out of those jokes - collecting them, re-telling them, even seeming to relish the somewhat disreputable reputation these jokes imply about their profession.

Now I am dependent on the good will and good heart of lawyers to have any success in my own job and for the clients I serve. What I do is go to the courthouses of six counties (Wabash, Miami, Cass, Fulton, Tipton and Howard) to do intake interviews with low-income folks. These are people who do not even begin to have the means to hire private attorneys. The fact is that poor people have at least as many, if not more legal problems, than more affluent Americans. If it weren't for the attorneys who are willing to take their cases pro bono (without pay), they would simply be shut out of the legal system altogether.

In America, you have a right to a lawyer if you are charged with a criminal act. If you can't afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to represent you. The same is not true in civil matters. If you want a divorce or custody of your children, the law says that being provided an attorney isn't an inherent right. If you don't have the money to hire private counsel, too bad, so sad. If you are being unfairly treated by a landlord or a creditor, finding representation in the court is on you. Not having an attorney, if the other side of your case has one, is a huge disadvantage. A low-income person most likely doesn't know the ins and outs of legal forms and litigation and the technicalities of proving their case in court.

So.....what this means is that these people rely on lawyers who are willing to take their cases without pay and some people who have poor opinions of attorneys in general, might be surprised to find what a large percentage of them volunteer to take such cases. Granted, the lawyers' Code of Ethics requires them to do a certain amount of pro bono work but so far as I know, there is no penalty for non-compliance. Some lawyers say they have clients who don't pay them so by writing off those bad fees, they consider they've done their duty. This may satisfy the letter if not the spirit of the law.

I have never tried to sit down and figure out the exact percentage of lawyers in my six counties who do pro bono work but I'd guess it to be between 30 and 50 percent. In 2007, Wabash actually had a higher participation rate even than 50 percent.

Howard County lawyers are far and away the most generous of the counties. Not that there are a higher percentage of lawyers who take cases but in the number of cases they take. Indiana Legal Services asks every lawyer if they will take two pro bono cases per year. Many of the Kokomo lawyers take 24 cases a year. I am grateful for the ones who give me instructions like, "send me two divorces a month". I don't even have to keep calling and begging, I just know on the first of every month, I can assign two clients to them for filing marriage dissolutions.

Maybe this has to do with how much larger Howard County is than my other counties. Or that many attorneys there work in larger firms who can afford for them to designate more time away from the paying part of the practice.

But attorneys in my other counties also step up to the plate. Sometimes they themselves will talk to a client who obviously cannot afford to pay them and will direct those people to me, telling me that they'll take the case if the client meets our criteria for assistance. One week in Rochester, I interviewed 3 people and all had been pre-placed by lawyers who sent them to me.

My least favorite part of my job is being a salesperson, trying to persuade attorneys to take cases, especially those who aren't particularly favorable toward the idea of pro bono work. I never thought of myself as being an especially effective salesperson. I worry that they will think I'm "bugging" them or "nagging". Nevertheless, I do it and I'm gratified by the response. I've grown to know the lawyers who will give me a hearing on a particularly sad case, even if they already have other active pro bono cases.

What I like most is doing the interviews. I like talking to the people who come to see me. Sometimes, they don't even want an attorney so much as someone who'll listen to them and seem to care about their problems. Others are in dire straits and desperately need legal help. I see the relief and gratitude when I'm able to tell them that they can lay their troubles on the shoulders of a professional who has agreed to help them.

Like every other profession, there are a multitude of diverse personalities that make up the legal profession, some more likeable and admirable than others but from the prism from which I view them now, I'd have to say my say, my estimation of lawyers has gone up immensely.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Renewed Faith

Thank God for the voters of New Hampshire. As much of a political junkie as I am, I was about ready to bail on politics altogether because I was so disgusted by the media's treatment of Hillary Clinton.

I started this presidential campaign with a lot of enthusiasm. I was a Hillary supporter but I thought the Dems had a great field of candidates - the first viable woman, the first viable African-American, the first viable Hispanic - not to mention Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, both of whom I admired and thought would make excellent presidents. (I don't take Dennis Kucinich seriously because I believe he uses the presidential campaign not to win but as a platform for his beliefs, which is okay). So, I was prepared to happily vote for whoever the nominee of my party turned out to be.

I'll still vote for whomever the Dems select although maybe not quite so happily. This all started when the mainstream media began its campaign to kill Hillary. First, I believe they set her up with the "inevitability" theme. She wasn't the one who was pushing her "inevitability", it was the media itself. I think they knew full well that it would cause bitterness in voters who don't like feeling they are being taken for granted.

Then they waited for her to make a mistake (and they had to wait a while). Finally, she flubbed an answer regarding driver's licenses for illegal aliens in a debate. From then on the criticism was relentless with much of it being flatly sexist. I watched her being held to a completely different standard than the men.

I heard her referred to as a "witch". I heard male commentators say she made them want to "cross their legs". I heard one analyst say she should be called the "vaginal candidate". I heard them speak of castration in reference to her. I heard her voice called "grating" and "screechy" and that it was like "fingernails on a blackboard". I heard her laugh constantly referred to as a "cackle". I read about her showing "cleavage" when she wore a simple vee-necked sweater that any of us would wear to our jobs. I heard her called "cold and calculating" when she didn't show enough emotion and I heard her called "weak" when she showed too much emotion. I heard all these things endlessly analyzed for deep psychological meaning.

I watched Tim Russert begin an early debate by asking every other candidate to air their gripes against Hillary. Before it was over, 25 of 52 questions were, directly or indirectly, about Hillary, with 23 of them having a negative tone. Meanwhile, the Republicans were doing the same in their debates.

Of course, when she defended herself, she was accused of whining and of playing the gender card because, naturally, only a woman would dare to respond to such treatment.

I was stunned that this could be happening in the 21st century and that almost no one seemed to think it was unacceptable to treat a woman in such a contemptuous and demeaning way.

Meanwhile, the media put Barack Obama on a pedestal so high no criticism could be allowed to touch him. They fell all over themselves fawning over him. He was compared to JFK, Martin Luther King, even Abraham Lincoln! On MSNBC's morning show, Morning Joe, Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough practically turned themselves inside out in praise of him. The news people surrounded him by a protective shield. I began to think of him as "He Who Must Not Be Criticized". He was evidently so fragile that the least pushback against him by Hillary was intolerable.

Remember when a McCain supporter asked, "how do we beat the bitch?" Remember how McCain said, "that's an interesting question". (He eventually said something semi-complimentary about Hillary but it certainly wasn't his first response). Remember how the media played it over and over like it was cute? Now imagine that instead that McCain supporter had asked, "how do we get the "racial slur?" and imagine the reaction if McCain hadn't instantly repudiated the question. That tells you all you need to know about the treatment of these two candidacies - and, it seemed to me, the tolerance of our society toward prejudice against women.

I was dejected after the Iowa caucuses because it seemed to me that the media's campaign had worked. I wasn't even going to stay up and watch the New Hampshire primary when it was projected by the polls that Obama would beat Hillary by a double-digit margin and thereby, lock up the nomination. I hated the way the reporters and commentators were so gleeful about writing Hillary's political obituary before the body of her campaign was even cold and the way they'd crowned him King when only about 400,000 people in the whole country had voted.

I told Mom to just leave me a note about the results in New Hampshire so I'd know first thing in the morning. Then John came in and said that CNN had Hillary ahead with 15 per cent of the precincts reporting. After that, I had to stay up. I was ecstatic when the networks finally started projecting her the winner. I loved watching all the media folks who had been so sure they'd destroyed her have to eat crow.

There have been many theories about why she won in New Hampshire. It was her "tears" (she did well up but there were no tears). She showed her "human side" - blah, blah, blah. I think the answer was much simpler. The last week before the New Hampshire vote, the stock market was on a roller coaster ride. Unemployment went up to 5 percent. Christmas sales were flat. Foreclosures and bankruptcies were up, along with the price of gas. I think New Hampshire voters decided it wasn't a good time to take a flier on an unproven young candidate no matter how optimistic and vibrant his campaign appeared to be. They thought with their pocketbooks. Who had the experience for hard economic times? Why, the Clintons, of course, who had already proven themselves in this area. It was the economy, stupid.

We don't know yet who the eventual winner will be and you know, the thing is that I really have no problem with Obama. If he prevails over Hillary in the end, I'll support him. although , I have serious doubts about his "bring everyone together" campaign.

Do people think Bill Clinton came to Washington wanting to pick a fight? No, just like Obama, he was hoping to unite people and pass his agenda. As I recall, he even put Republicans in his cabinet (as Obama says he will do). It didn't happen, because Republicans didn't allow it to happen just as I don't believe they would allow it to happen in an Obama administration. Not only that, even the old, set-in-its-ways Democratic bureaucracy fought Clinton at every turn. It was that old bull senator, Sam Nunn, who stonewalled Clinton in trying to end discrimination against gays in the military (hence leaving us with that abomination, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell").

The party's have different beliefs and different goals and that is why they disagree on most of the major issues. The Republicans have got their way for almost eight years. Seems to me that the Democrats have them on the ropes right now and the last thing we need is someone who wants to go to Washington to make nice with them. I haven't noticed the Republicans wanting to bring us in much the last seven years. I want a fighter, not a lover this time around.

But I understand the freshness and appeal of Obama. I think he has a great future in politics. I just hope it isn't as president in 2009. But if it is, I still think he'll benefit from having to prevail in a hard-fought campaign. If anyone has studied the media as much as I have these last many years, they can bet that, despite the love-fest they've had for him when it was Obama vs. Hillary, it will end when it is Obama vs. whatever Republicans wins his nomination. The media can make a candidate and the media can break a candidate. They tried to break Hillary but they didn't get the job done, at least not yet. It is her toughness to take a licking and keep on ticking that makes me hope she's our nominee. We don't know yet if that's also true of Barack Obama.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What Does Being a Christian Mean to You?

I wish someone would do a survey of the main five elements Christians believe their religion demands of them. I would truly be curious to know how behavior is determined by faith. What is it Christians believe Jesus expects from them?

This applies to me on only a marginal level. I have my own quirky beliefs that don't really match up with any particular denomination - and my bottom line is that no one really knows for sure. Still, even in my doubt, I have certain basic assumptions. My five are:

1) The Golden Rule - if you want to cut right to the chase of a faith system, you probably can't go too far wrong with "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It states in one simple, elegant sentence the ideal of most major religions.

2) With power, comes responsibility to be fair. Anyone who holds power over someone else, be it parents over children, animal owners over their pets/livestock, the judicial system over those who fall into its influence, employers over their employees, etc. have an absolute moral duty to use that power justly.

3) Tolerance - The God I choose to believe in expects His/Her practitioners to extend tolerance to those who are different from themselves whether that means skin color, religion, culture, language or sexual orientation And tolerance goes farther than simple tolerance, but includes sincere attempts at understanding.

4) Concern for the Less Fortunate - It has always seemed to me that one of the Bible's key teachings is compassion for the poor. There are many more lessons about helping the poor than there are about, for instance, homosexuality.

5) Stewardship of the Earth - If there is a single reason I believe in a Supreme Being, it is the absolute miraculousness and interconnectedness of this Earth and all the living things that walk, fly, swim and grow upon it. It is as if we were given an incredible gift but have so little respect for it, that we throw it out in the yard, unconcerned as gets dirtier and more battered by the day.

Okay, so those are my main beliefs about life. I frequently fail in putting them into practice. Sometimes, I feel vengeful about wrongs that have been done me or others. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself regarding the things I don't have rather than grateful for the things I do have. I have my moments of envy and of anger. But, still, such as I am able, I try to live consistent with those five beliefs and I am aware of it when I falter.

What has stirred my curiosity about the beliefs of others and what it means to them in actual practice is politics - because, it seems to me, there is a huge disconnect between modern politics and faith. I truly would like to understand how so many people seem able to balance what seem to me to be conflicting beliefs.

This seems particularly true of the Republicans. To a large extent, the Republican party has been successful in branding itself the party of Christian values. But what values are those? If you have watched all the presidential debates, as I have, you have to have noticed that the Republicans are considerably meaner than the Democrats in many different ways. They seem more prone to seeing war or at least some kind of violent response as the answer to all our geopolitical differences. They are much more favorably disposed toward torture. The Republicans have much more of an "every man for himself" attitude toward economic policy which extends even to children (i.e., health care). They are more judgmental about differences in humans. They may say that when it comes to gays, "they hate the sin, not the sinner" but the actual legislation they propose has the practical effect of punishing gay people and their families, leaving them far short of being able to "pursue happiness". Republicans are more approving of capital punishment and/or harsh sentencing than Democrats and more hostile toward working out any kind of amnesty toward illegal aliens, even those who have lived here a long time and contributed positively to our society. Republicans, over all, seem more unconcerned about the wounds we are inflicting on this earth.

I'm not necessarily saying all these views are either good or bad or right or wrong but just that they seem to against the very essence of Jesus' teachings and I don't know how those who believe them reconcile the two philosophies.

I'm not one who believes churches shouldn't engage in politics and to try to influence legislation. Both black and white churches were in the forefront of abolition and later, in the civil rights movement. Those were principled positions and the churches felt faith-bound to pursue them. I even understand the power of the anti-abortion issue. I don't agree with it but if you truly believe that life begins at conception, then I guess there's not much room for compromise.

But I asked someone whom I believe to be very genuine and devout about her faith if her church had discussed torture and the appropriateness of our country engaging in it and she said no, that she'd never heard anyone mention torture. I found it stunning that churches, the very arbiters of social morality, would not engage their members in such a fundamental issue of right and wrong? It's all very well to collect alms for the poor and declare yourself good but isn't insisting that your country maintain standards of righteous conduct that America has always stood for a much more important mission?

If Christians have the faith they say they have and if they believe that God is on America's side as they so frequently do, then it seems they would practice what he preached and believe that everything will turn out right in the end.