Legality and Justice

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

A couple of quotes, one short and one fairly long, to start the new year 12 days late (it must be January 1st somewhere in the universe).

Looking at my last message here, it would be hard to disagree with whomever that Shakespearean guy was who wrote that “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.”

I’m hoping this will be neither the last syllable nor the last day for this on-again off-again blog, but who knows? Death comes without warning, as one of my old teachers (not a law professor) used to say.

That out of the way, I want to recommend a movie to you. It’s “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.” Kunstler was a great civil rights and criminal defense lawyer who would have defended Jesus Christ no more or less zealously than he would have defended the devil himself. He defended the Mississippi Freedom Riders, the Chicago Seven, Russell Means and Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement, and the gangster John Gotti. He died while defending the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Tower bombing.

The film was made by his daughters, who didn’t fully understand how Kunstler could take on such heroic causes on the one hand, and defend some of his time’s greatest villains on the other. The film helps to get to that understanding. It may have helped them, and I know it can help anyone who ever has reason to have contact with the justice system, which means just about everyone.

Even though one of its greatest practitioners, Kunstler was deeply suspicious of the medium through which he plied his craft. The “law,” and “legality,” were never in his mind confused with “justice.” He had this to say about legality, and if you haven’t the time to watch the film, at least hear this:

And that’s the terrible myth of organized society: that everything that’s done through the established system, is legal.

And that word has a powerful psychological impact. It makes people believe that there is an order to life; and an order to a system – and that a person that goes through this order, and is convicted, has gotten all that is due him, and therefore society can turn its conscience off, and look to other things and other times.

And that’s the terrible thing about these past trials: is that they have this aura of legitimacy, this aura of legality. I suspect that better men than the world has known, and more of them, have gone to their death through a legal system, than through all the illegalities in the history of man.

Six million people in Europe, during the Third Reich? Legal. Sacco-Vanzetti? Quite legal. The Haymarket defendants? Legal.

The hundreds of rape trials throughout the South, where black men were condemned to death? All legal.

Jesus? Legal. Socrates? Legal.

And that is the kaledioscopic nature of what we live through, here and in other places. Because all tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality, than to do it without that pretense.


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