Justice For Some

Let me apologize in advance for mentioning  Paris Hilton in this blog. I have never done so before and cannot imagine a circumstance that would compel me to do so in the future.

That said, I cannot let her release from jail just a few days into her (already reduced) 23-day sentence go by without comment. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to assume that she had a compelling case for being released to home confinement. However, it would strain credulity to suggest that she was the only inmate in the Century Regional Detention Center with such a compelling case.  Therefore, the simple fact that she was released while there were others similarly situated but who were not released necessarily means that she was given special treatment.  And that is wrong.

Special treatment in our legal system is not the exclusive domain of the rich and famous, however.  I was only a couple of weeks into my law practice career when I saw first-hand how “equal justice under the law” can be more aspirational than actual.  Nervously clutching the file on my first speeding ticket case, I entered the courtroom and, as my boss had instructed, joined the line of of lawyers that was slowly making its way to the door in the front of the courtroom that led to the judge’s chambers.  While the judge and an Assistant District Attorney were handling first appearances in criminal cases, we in the lawyer line went through the door a few at a time and down a short hallway, past the judge’s chambers to a room where another Assistant District Attorney sat behind a table.  One by one, we approached the table, identified our client and the charge, and the A.D.A. announced the reduced charge that the state would offer in exchange for a guilty plea.  There were no surprises here – we all knew what the standard reduced charge was for each offense.  

After receiving the A.D.A.’s pronouncement as to the agreed-upon disposition of my client’s charge, I followed the lead of the lawyer ahead of me, gave a perfunctory “thanks” to the A.D.A., and made my way back out to the courtroom.  I found my client, advised her that the plea bargain was a done deal, and waited with her until her case was called.  When the case was eventually called, the A.D.A. advised the judge of the reduced charge, my client pled guilty, and that was that.  I had successfully steered my first case through the system.

I have no problem with plea bargains.  Those who glibly suggest that there should be no plea bargains and that every case should be tried fail to appreciate the sheer volume of cases that pass through the system each day.  But can anyone who wants a plea bargain get a plea bargain?  At least in that courtroom 17 years ago, the answer was no – not unless you hired a lawyer.  My client was able to plead to a reduced charge because she had spent a couple hundred bucks and hired me.  As much as I’d like to say that it was my sterling advocacy that had gotten her the deal, it was nothing of the kind.  I had simply stood in line like a lemming in a wool suit and wingtips, the A.D.A. had noted that my client was one of those who had paid the entrance fee into the land of the represented, and the deal was done. 

Was justice done?  No, I don’t think so.  When I walked back into the courtroom to find my client, I felt like I was an accomplice in helping her get away with something.  Not because I felt badly about the result, but because I felt badly that for those defendants who were sitting in the courtroom without counsel, a plea bargain had not been an option.  They had not bought, and in many cases could have afforded to buy, a ticket to the land of negotiated justice.

And that, as with the case of Paris Hilton, was justice for some – but not for all.

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