Note to Matt Taibbi: Honesty Itself Is Being Criminalized in America's Corrupt Courts
Matt Taibbi on Moyers & Company
Photo Credit: screengrab via youtube
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Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is a book about what happens in American courtrooms. Immigrants are deported for traffic violations. Lawyers retained by relatively honest billionaires to defend themselves against attacks from more classically psychotic billionaires are treated by judges with a contempt typically reserved for telemarketers. Wrongful termination lawsuits filed by corporate whistleblowers are thrown out. Bail gets set just high enough to feed prison contractors hordes of accused loiterers, and just low enough to ensure bail bondsmen won’t take the business. Day after day, megabanks win the legal authority to repossess the car or house or bank account of this or that alleged debtor on the basis of her failure to show up in court to answer a summons she never received, because in lieu of actually delivering that summons, the megabank paid some bucket shop four dollars to produce a signed affidavit swearing one of its employees had physically delivered it, while in fact depositing it and thousands like it in a dumpster, a technique known in the business as “sewer service.”
And day after day, five o’ clock rolls around and thousands of alleged jaywalkers, obstructors of pedestrian traffic and open-container possessors are instructed to show up again next month because the arresting officer was too preoccupied with nabbing fresh loiterers to show up to court that day, or because there are simply too many defendants—50,000 marijuana possession cases, 80,000 disorderly conduct cases and 140,000 open container cases a year in New York City alone. Cases rarely go to trial: Innocent 99 percenters admit guilt, and guilty financial crime syndicates shell out millions for the privilege of admitting nothing.
I visited one such courtroom myself last July, after $100 parking tickets started appearing on my car window every other night or so, for the alleged infraction of “failure to secure D.C. tags.” I collected 11 before I finally found a free day to haul myself into a courtroom to explain: My car was not registered in D.C. because I didn’t live in D.C.; I just happened to work at a restaurant in D.C. that closed after the metro stopped running.
“Why did you allow so many tickets to accumulate before disputing them?” the judge wanted to know.
“Well, I had work, and since ticketing people for failure to register their cars in states in which they do not actually reside seemed to clearly be an illegal racket I wanted to contest in person,” I said.
“What you refer to as an illegal racket,” he replied, “is the broadly recognized power of the state to tax its citizens.”
Taibbi never quite articulates this, but virtually all the judges presiding over the bureaucratic atrocities described in the book seem to view themselves fundamentally as tax collectors. “Get your wallets ready! We take Visa and MasterCard!” one judge ghoulishly announces before a room filled with public urinators and sidewalk bicyclists. Another upholds California’s subjection of food-stamp applicants to terrifying unannounced searches by the welfare-fraud Gestapo on the grounds that the public “interest in ensuring the aid provided from tax dollars reaches its proper and intended recipients” trumps the Fourth Amendment. Undocumented immigrants in particular are viewed as what one lawyer calls “walking ATM machines”; one single mom in Los Angeles named Natividad Felix finally catches a “break” when a judge reduces her $1,700 fine for driving without a license to $500—plus 170 hours of community service.
In 2011, one federal judge, writing in the Michigan Bar Journal, described the decline of the American judiciary into a modern version of the Roman Empire “tax farming” bureaucracy, wherein judges have been “appointed [as] revenue agents” charged with extracting state funds “from people in no position to complain”—all so legislators across the nation can eternally and “speciously pledge no new taxes.” But why do so few judges reject this degradation of the profession?