A few years ago, Channel Ten was rumoured to be developing an Australian version of Judge Judy. Some stern notable was slated to prognosticate about minor neighbourhood disputes, road rage incidents, and so on.
The concept never made it probably because Australians don’t trust judges the way Americans do. We can see this cultural difference most clearly if we look at the recent storms over Paris Hilton’s jailing and Scooter Libby’s sentencing.
Exhibit Number One: Hilton’s three-day jail term. Two weeks ago, the heiress was all over every media outlet in America, from Perez Hilton to the New York Times. ‘It’s not a Bronco chase but it’s close,’ one hyperventilating cable reporter exclaimed, as shots of Paris being pursued by the paparazzi back to the Los Angeles courthouse were broadcast live.
The Bronco reference is a reminder of a case that many Americans see as symbolic of celebrities and the rich receiving unequal treatment before the law the OJ Simpson story. Most Americans are still sore about Simpson, especially after he tried to release a book late last year entitled If I Did It, which hypothetically detailed how he might have killed his ex-wife.
OJ, of course, was acquitted after a notorious tabloid circus. Paris hasn’t been so lucky. She was jailed for 45 days.
But even at this point, justice favoured the rich. Sheriff Lee Baca, the guy who was meant to be enforcing the law in LA County jail, thought that the poor dear had had enough jail time after a couple of days.
In a State famous for its enactment of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws during the 1990s, that seems suspiciously like going soft on crime.
And at a time where one in two female inmates in America are unemployed with an income below the poverty line when arrested, there seems even less reason to engineer an early release someone who has never had to fight for a meal.
The Sheriff cited Hilton’s mental health issues as justifying her early release, but in the United States today, 15 per cent of women in prison suffer from serious psychological disorders, like scitzophrenia, severe depression or bipolar disorder. And Judge Michael Sauer found there was no proof that Paris Hilton suffered from a mental disorder at all.
So, despite the 400 fan emails and the best efforts of Lee Baca, it was back to the slammer for Paris, who’s now reportedly found God there.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
Exhibit number two: Scooter Libby. Libby was convicted of perjury in April. On 5 June, after sentencing him to 30 months in jail, Judge Reggie Walton ordered that character references and legal briefs written in support of Dick Cheney’s former number two man be released.
Libby’s lawyers had argued that none of these documents should be released because they might be ‘discussed, even mocked, by bloggers.’
The judge dismissed that as a valid argument to suppress the documents and the result is that we now have an exposÃ© of the degree to which everyone in Washington DC is pally with Scooter. The documents also show how much political debate in the capital is ‘made for television.’
Many of the documents are written by small-l ‘liberals’ who think Scooter is so swell that he deserves lenient treatment by the judge. Bill Clinton’s former strategist, ‘the Raging Cajun’ James Carville, signed onto his wife’s letter, which argued that Libby shouldn’t be treated harshly because he ‘arranged an ad-hoc trick or treat’ for their kids.
Neo-cons didn’t desert Scooter either. Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank President, argued that Libby’s children had suffered from ‘cruel comments’ and ‘fears about the future.’ Wolfowitz’s letter doesn’t recognise that any of the 1.5 million children in America with parents in jail might have the same worries. In fact, none of the letters that I’ve glanced through assume anything other than that Scooter should receive ‘special treatment.’
Again, only Judge Reggie Walton noted this fact. In a footnote answering the brief sent by top legal scholars Robert Bork and Alan Dershowitz, Walton remarked that Libby was able to call on a ‘distinguished group’ of supporters to make his case. Walton continued:
The Court trusts that this is a reflection of these eminent academics’ willingness in the future to step up to the plate and provide like assistance in cases involving any of the numerous litigants, both in this Court and throughout the courts of our nation, who lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions.
Tough talk. But in a country where everyone’s famously guaranteed equality, the decisions of both judges show it’s only the judiciary who actually attempt to uphold the principle.
Simply put, the United States today is a society where, during a trial, money and influence buys better lawyers. And during sentencing, the powerful are able to call on elite supporters to provide glowing character references.
What all this shows is that questions of poverty, power and influence are discussed more frequently in US courts than in Washington. One hundred and fifty years ago, the French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville argued that, in the US, the ‘language of the law’ had ‘penetrated into all classes of the society.’
He noted that many American politicians were originally lawyers. That observation has been true throughout US history more than half of America’s 44 Presidents were lawyers at one time.
Today, Democratic Presidential candidates John Edwards and Hillary Clinton both have ‘lawyer’ listed as their former occupation. Republican Fred Thompson played one on TV.
‘Consequently, the language of everyday Party-political controversy has to be borrowed from legal phraseology and conceptions,’ De Tocqueville wrote.
The result of the ‘lawyerisation’ of debate in America today is a society where social justice is understood in terms of legal justice. Receiving a ‘fair go’ from Judge Judy (or a ‘day in court’) has come to substitute for a society in which everyone has equal opportunity (to access social services).
Maybe Australians are right to be suspicious of judges and lawyers. The alternative’s none too appealing. The United States today
resembles a society which is less about the rule of law and more a place where lawyers rule.
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