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Chinn: (A Small) Part of the Solution

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iba-chinn-scottThe American Bar Association’s theme for Law Day to be observed on May 1 is “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom”. The theme is meant to headline the growing problem of diminished funding for court systems across the country, which in some places has led to crisis conditions more indicative of third world legal systems than of the American ideal of justice. In the weeks to come, you’ll hear more from me and other bar leaders about that issue and its manifestations in Indiana.

But as we lead up to May 1, there is another aspect of our modern system that I thought worthy of addressing. Specifically, I have heard concerns from lawyers and judges recently about how our 24/7 media and information culture is producing false expectations and misunderstandings about the nature of the litigation process. Think about recent Indiana cases involving mass torts, political offices, and the remarks of prosecutors in criminal matters. Each context has presented challenges to public understanding about how our system works, i.e., what are its basic fairness guarantees to the parties, how motion practice and discovery work, and how long is “normal” to wait for an appropriate resolution of the case.

To some extent, we will never be able to completely disabuse the public about the pitfalls of jumping to conclusions when a case is filed, when a defendant is charged or when a public statement about a case only captures one side of the story or a piece of the process. But the question on my mind – and on the minds of those who have raised this issue with me – is what lawyers should be doing (and not doing) to aid the public understanding and to cause light to be shed from public comments instead of heat.

First, when called upon to speak about cases publicly, we should take pains to provide reasoned and tempered statements of our clients’ positions in the matter, be willing to accurately describe the process of decision, and avoid dramatic flair that can so easily overwhelm public understanding about the process. Second, we should take opportunities when appropriate, not necessarily in connection with our own representations, to offer our understanding to non-lawyers about the fundamentals of how the process works. Finally, we should personalize the lesson we give when we are asked informally about the litigation process. What would it be like if you were charged with a crime, would you want the prosecutor making you sound evil on television? What if your small business was sued for allegedly injuring someone and your livelihood was on the line, wouldn’t you want your day in court?

I don’t find particular fault with the popular media. I believe most journalists still impose on themselves an obligation to report accurately and as much in context as reasonably possible. Much will necessarily be lost in translation and in the brevity demanded in contemporary news stories. We should try to help journalists understand as much as possible about the process and not feed them with salacious sound bites.

By calling on lawyers to act with good purpose and restraint in public comments on cases, I also don’t mean to present a one-dimensional view of legal discourse in these matters or for wooden cadence that would please only lovers of Joe Friday. (Note to readers: using Dragnet references is a sure way to create a generation gap.) As a current example occurring outside our borders, take the case of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The circumstances of the case present both understandable civil rights inquiries and questions about the impact of Florida’s so-called “Stand-Your-Ground” law. Lawyers are involved in speaking publicly about these issues, including as advocates for investigation and reform. I find reasonable expressions of that advocacy completely appropriate, even though we don’t yet know all the facts of the shooting or of the actions of the Sanford police in responding to it. So, there’s an art to this.

We are all tempted (the author included) to short-circuit the process in talking about who we think is guilty, who we think is at fault, and who should get a comeuppance. The world of instant media – both traditional and social – gives easy means to fall to that temptation. If lawyers continue to act as the voices of reason, however, that will be a small part of the solution to the problem of ensuring the American ideal of justice.•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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