Saturday, February 10, 2007

Mad Dad: Quirk of Court

Dick Cheney's leering portrait is not the only idiosyncrasy in the Moakley Courthouse on South Boston's waterfront. Chimeral expectations of impartial justice aside, the personalities of key players in court assuredly weigh heavily to one side or another.

A first visit to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts revealed a stark and sterile building. This accentuated the powerful role of the personalities of the judge and lawyers.

This was the first federal hearing for the Mad Dad case. Thus, the plaintiffs and defendants did not speak. Rather, they spoke only through previous filings and the interpretations of attorneys.

Background link: All of the filings are available at the anti-gay/anti-same-sex marriage Massresistance site, under the Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit column.

On center stage then were:
This is not some they-said-but-they-said accident suit. Instead, the plaintiffs allege straightforward violations of federal protections in the first and fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For jimmies on this judicial cone, they also allege violation of commonwealth law Chapter 71: Section 32A, requiring prior parental notification of sex-education in public schools.

So, from your high-school civic lessons, you'd suppose this would be clear. Plaintiffs accuse defendants, set out the facts, cite how these acts were illegal, and specify their damages and expected relief. Defendants would similarly cop to the mistakes, or set out their own facts and try to convince the judge that they are either blameless or caused no damage.

Well, then those messy and naughty humans get in the way.

Funky Locale

Like Legos gone wild, the courthouse at Fan Pier makes a strong architectural statement -- at least if you are one of the few who can see it from a boat or plane. From the business side, catercorner from the Barking Crab, it could be another nondescript suburban office park or a modern version of the old New England woolen factory.

This is a good place to send old security guards. Even with a full docket, the traffic is pretty low. The stereotypical night-court thugs are not part of there. White collar criminals and high-ranking Mafiosi may do awful things, but not in that building.

There's a two-tier electronics-club membership here. Check all electronics at the front, unless you carry a Massachusetts Bar card, in which case you can keep your cell phone, turned to vibrate or off. Then jolly older men barely glance at your license and a credit card for ID. The metal detector is set so low that it didn't pick up on two metal fountain pens in a jacket pocket.

That's when you can see Leering Dick. Trot around the corner from the entry toward the coffee shop and there he is. Two pay-phone stalls are under his sneering gaze, gold-framed Dick Cheney looking, just looking. It would have to be a very important call for me to make it under his portrait's view. Creepy.

After reviewing the defendants' latest rebuttal and enjoying a Poland Springs seltzer -- three flavors to choose from in the coffee shop! -- I swung back to the entry to look at the clipboard with the docket. That was a wonderful Boston moment. If you have to ask, you don't really belong. I knew the judge was Mark Wolf and the case name. However, the schedule listed it as CA06-10751. We don't list no courtrooms or floors.

Speak of the Devil

Most hearings and trials appeared to happen on the fifth floor. I headed that way and went into an open elevator, which I shared with Brian Camenker (opens Ed Holmes video). I admit that I am not the publicity hound he is and that I got voyeuristic delight in realizing he did not know who tainted the shared air. We knew each other about 25 years ago as active Boston Computer Society members (I was member 274 and even then he would work anti-gay comments into geek meetings). We have since been at various political protests and meetings -- opposite sides, of course. It's apparently impossible to be observant when you are self-absorbed; what could be as interesting as yourself?

His appearance was not important. He definitely supports the plaintiffs, but he was not testifying. Yet, it was amusing to see his dishevelment. He was fairly a ragged teddy bear, with odd tufts of stuffing off his scalp. His black suit jacket perhaps used to cover his growing butt, but no longer does. His defining garment surely had to be the green-mucus colored V-necked sweater. All in all, it was a wonderfully comic impression.

Regardless, I was about to start a debate, but the elevators are amazingly quick and our only conversation ran along the lines of:
BC: Where are you going?
MM: Probably the same place you are...the Lexington case.
BC: Yeah.
BC: This is the craziest building.
He sprinted from the opening elevator and headed to the two clumps of folk, one in front of each of two neighboring courtrooms. The guard grunted affirmatively when I asked whether this was Chief Judge Wolf's courtroom.

Welcome to the 21st Century

The updated room has none of the grotto, netherworld heaviness and darkness of other Boston courts. The high ceilings, off-white walls and light-stained wooden benches are more like a new Unitarian church than a room where you would not be surprised to see stalactites hanging down.

Of the 40 or 50 already there, it was hard to see where the political boundaries were. The cartoon-like David and big-haired Tonia Parker were front right, joined by Camenker. I headed front left. That was dumb; I might have overheard some funny rants. Pity.

However, the gallery approximately doubled in the final 10 minutes before 2 p.m. Then the personalities of the three legal actors came into play. Discard that ideal of impartial justice and know that it is the all-too-human cast that injects knowledge, deceit, hyperbole and emotion into the decision making.

That's surprising, but not necessarily bad, particularly when the judge is as sharp as Wolf seems. There is no validation that he is any near as brilliant as he seems to consider himself. However, he is more than up to this case.

It is worth considering the obvious baggage the three players displayed Wednesday. That affects how quickly a decision will come, by what means, and the result.

Admittedly, I am pretty pink and come with my own political trappings. However, having reviewed and re-reviewed all the documents, the relevant cases and laws, and public statements by all concerned, I think this is pretty easy to settle. To wit:
  • This has no business in a federal court.
  • The primary claim that the timorous diversity lessons, including early-reader books that mentioned same-sex couples as one type, do not rise to anywhere near first-amendment violation of the parents' and kids' right to practice their religion.
  • The attempt to say that exposing the kids to ideas such as classmates possibly having two moms or two dads is a violation of their privacy under the fourth amendment is even more absurd.
  • The terrible burden the parents claim is in effect what all parents must or at least should deal with -- telling their kids when they disagree with something the tots hear in school.
  • Finally, the laughable list of demands the parents would make on the school system to ensure that they kids never hear of anything they would not teach them is incompatible with public education.
So, were I Wolf, I would have no problem tossing this and scolding the devil out of the plaintiffs and their lawyers. The real resolution is for them to accept that they cannot control the curriculum of the public school, short of working for a more simpatico school board. They should do as all of us parents do and instill our values by words and actions, not some quixotic effort to prevent exposure to reality. If they are that bent by the reality in their community, they can school their kids privately or at home.

Then again, I am not in Wolf's seat and I have not doubt President Ronald Reagan would not have appointed me even if I were also a credentialed U.S. prosecutor.

Strutting and Fretting

So, what did the boys in the big room show on Wednesday?

First, Wolf is inordinately proud of various of his decisions that he thinks influenced U.S. constitutional rulings. He brought up three or four of his, at least one of which neither attorney seemed to be aware of, as they evinced by grabbing their pens and writing furiously. That also suggested that he intimidates them.

Wolf waved hard copies of a couple of cases and had others on his laptop screen at his bench. He quoted freely from them and savored some of his favorite phrases. Amusingly enough tough, while these mentioned the amendments or general rights in question, the cases seemed only secondary or tertiary in relation to the matters at hand. Both sides had already cited and discussed the rulings (none of them Wolf''s) that applied.

Defense attorney John J. Davis is clearly very serious and extremely knowledgeable. That does not automatically trump his opponent, Robert Sinsheimer, who is a veritable jack-in-the-box, fairly leaping to his feet inappropriately like the kid who finally knows the right answer and can't wait for the teacher to call on him.

At one point, Wolf even stopped to remark that he had dealt with Sinsheimer for two decades and that he had been unable to tame him -- "He can sit down. He just can't sit still." Wolf seemed amused and not annoyed.

Davis has a bit of a stammer when he gets ahead of himself. In interweaving citations and argument, he seems to not have the time to cram it all into his mouth. His speech pattern is not quite a stutter and is not severe enough to detract from his points.

Sinsheimer, on the other hand, is a showman. His filing in this case includes a series of unsupported and unsupportable assertions. In attempting to prove both rights violations and damages to his clients, he draws some unbelievable inferences and conclusions from the cases he cites. Exaggeration seems to give way to fantasy.

It was not until he declared that the plaintiffs were true victims that I realized that I was in the midst of the other side. Three women around me began rocking back and forth, stereotypical of those in mental institutions where I had volunteered as a teen. When he made particularly strong statements about parents having absolute rights to control what their children heard, the woman in front of me and the one to my right nodded with great vigor and muttered assent. That issue of being in charge strikes to the heart of this controversy. The authoritative personality leads with the emotional need for that certainly, tough in a world filled with ambiguity.

Back to the theme of the post, there is no law saying such filings must be accurate or honest. Sinsheimer's are certainly not. He is an advocate using every trick he can devise to go for a victory.

I would not have Wolf''s long and wide view of this. Even with his patience, Wolfe informed Sinsheimer early in his remarks that the rhetoric of the filings was not acceptable in the oral hearing. As he said it, "We do not allow baseless assertions."

Yet, Sinsheimer is not one to be held down. Where Davis was very well mannered and respectful, Sinsheimer would occasionally use loaded, condescending phrases. For example, when he did not agree with a strong statement from Wolf, he would say, "I am hoping that I assist the court," another way of saying, "Listen up, dummy."

While it seemed Wolf had plenty of information, argument and interpretation for a dismissal here. He kept flashing is inclination to do so. He spoke of "if" he dismissed the federal complaint what might happen with the state side of the case. He noted that same-sex marriage is the law of the land and not something the plaintiffs could reasonably shield their kids from having awareness. He also took Sinsheimer's phrase of "indoctrination" in reference to the diversity curricula and turned it. He said that all moral education could be called indoctrination, and that "preparing people for citizenship is one of the primary purposes of public education."

Coy Judge

I would have predicted sure dismissal without trial until Wolf's final, unsolicited remarks. He seemed intrigued by the argument that children as young as five were in question here. Despite the fact that the books in question were at their grade level, he mused aloud about their ages.

Fortunately, Davis provided copies of the three books discussed, which Wolf seemed eager to have and entered as exhibits. The judge also commented that he regretted not hearing from the plaintiffs and defendants in such a hearing setting. That brings up the possibility that he might let it go to trial to do so.

From this left-wing perspective, I think that the plaintiffs would do well to avoid letting such irrational sorts as the parents testify. It was more than likely enough to hear Sinsheimer claim straight-faced that the kids' having been exposed to even the concept that there is legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was "a form of propaganda specifically intended to wipe out their way of life."

To the humanity of the players, we wonder whether Wolf's curiosity demands a trial for satisfaction, regardless of how clear the case seems. Sinsheimer's enthusiastic sophism should not be able to convince even a judge with a moderately conservative tilt. Trying to co-opt these two key amendments for such trivial purposes should lose quickly. Of course, it should have earned a dismissal this week.

If this drags on, the main impetus is Wolf's desire to hunt big game -- constitutional issues that will add to his legacy. Even with his soft-spoken expertise, Davis seems much better suited to Wolf's style. Sinsheimer amuses, while Davis sways.

P.S. I think Wolf would be a good drinking buddy.

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Peter Porcupine said...

I don't agree with much of your point of view, but your writing is brilliant.

This is the best post of yours I have ever read.

David Parker said...

I also don't agree with many of your viewpoints, however; I am forced to admit that your story telling is absolutely captivating. But can you please elaborate what your mean by "cartoon-like" when referring to David?

Anonymous said...

"The authoritative personality leads with the emotional need for that certainly, tough in a world filled with ambiguity."


Did you mean certainty? I don't usually make picayune comments, but I was a little confused. Thanks for taking the time to report on this.

Anonymous said...

I'm with PP that this is incredibly well-written: should be an article in the Atlantic or something.

massmarrier said...

To "david parker", there is no linked profile, so I am unsure whether you are the one mentioned. The cartoon reference is not a slur at all.

Rather the distinctiveness of the features is remarkable. While not as easy for a caricaturist as drawing, say, Richard Nixon, with his pointy features, Parker is not the man-in-the-crowd with brown hair and eyes, average height, build and looks. He would be easy to draw as a cartoon with very long face and nose, thick, short neck, and bags under the eyes.

I identify with my own cartoon features. Specifically, I have very broad shoulders and a real big chest. I also have a large jaw. It would be reasonable to use the same term for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words about my blog. I do my best to be interesting or at least to make people stop and say, "Wow. I didn't know that."

massmarrier said...

JCS, thanks for the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Also, I'm glad I followed the link to your site. It's full of great material, even at first glance. It may become a time sink.

As for the question, the authoritarian or authoritative personality, it is ambiguity that causes the problem. You can pick up works by Maslow or Adomo, or even check Wikipedia and articles on the Net for a lot of description and detail.

A real problem with some people in leaving others alone -- including same-sex marriage -- is the lack of absolute certainty. They need to have an authority figure state strongly and clearly what is and isn't acceptable morally, legally and otherwise. Changes like the expansion of civil contract law to permit SSM is more than some of them can take. The new and the gray alike can just be too much.

The ambiguity of court interpretations and creeping tolerance can be unsettling. It seems much easier to hear someone tell them, this is right and this is wrong. Then they don't have to think about it.