TED RALL: Lawyers Are All We Have Left

When I was still young enough to have heroes, I worked my way through such 1970s icons as Johnny Bench, Joe Strummer and Barbara Jordan. The Reds player, Clash singer and Watergate Congresswoman were each worthy of that special place in my heart, but in turn, each was deposed. While other great heroes came and went, Lloyd O'Hara, my mom's divorce lawyer, remains.Like most younger Americans, I grew up without a father. My dad walked out on me and my mom without a care in the world for what would become of us. We would surely have starved to death if not for Mr. O'Hara, as my mom still calls him. He not only squeezed cash out of my cheap rich dad, he repeatedly dragged him back to court over the next two decades to make him fulfill his part of the divorce decree.So I don't share the American view of lawyers as parasitic, cynical scuzbags. As far as I can see, lawyers are the best friends an average American can have. I love lawyers. They've saved my butt countless times.When my college roommate, Mike, and I left Manhattan for a road trip to Cape Cod, I knew he was an incorrigible pothead. What I didn't know was that he'd brought along an extra batch of "supplies" from the South Bronx. We got pulled over and busted by a small-town cop in central Massachusetts (his badge number had two digits) on suspicion of driving with out-of-state plates.After a night in jail, my whiny -- yet effective -- letter convinced the best lawyer in town to take on our case pro bono."Here we have two young men, college men, who made a mistake," he argued. "Everyone's entitled to one mistake, right?" He got us both acquitted of Possession of Narcotics Class D and convinced the judge -- his former partner -- to expunge the arrest from our police records. The judge's trust in me turned out to be well-placed; since then my life outside the law has been limited to speeding and driving single in the carpool lane. Mike can't say the same, but 50 percent isn't a bad rate of recidivism.I got expelled from Columbia after my junior year on suspicion of not attending class. As if getting the academic boot wasn't injury enough, my ex-alma mater billed me $3,300 for a senior dorm room I never got to occupy. I went through two years of earthly purgatory trying to get the university to tear up the bill, but neither the bursar, the collection agency, nor the civil court would see reason.Finally, I called the local Bar Association for a referral. They sent me to an attorney who represents students against Columbia. (In 1957 he was expelled from Columbia Law, which inspired his specialized practice.) Two days later, for the modest fee of $750, Columbia was off my back.As someone who draws political cartoons for a living, my job is to offend as many rich and powerful people as possible. One of the numerous occupational hazards cartoonists face is that politicians and corporate executives get angry at you. Sometimes they just send cease-and-desist letters, but just as often they file lawsuits for libel, slander, defamation, or whatever. These suits are all as frivolous as they are well-funded. The last time, I was targeted by a company famous for its Christian fundamentalist CEO for calling him a "right-wing Christian nutcase." Shaking off his dogs required four law-firm partners in two states.In recent years, juries have practiced a lot of income redistribution. Just last week, a Bronx jury awarded one of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz's four victims $43 million.Businesses and government often cite a civil court verdict awarding tens of millions of dollars to a woman scalded by McDonald's coffee as an example of jurisprudence gone berserk, but ask yourself: How would you feel if a company's stupidity caused your grandmother to get heat blisters on her genitals?In the McDonald's case, the jury heard that the company had ignored hundreds of complaints about its dangerously hot coffee. It took a multi-million dollar judgment to wake the company up.In another case, the New York MTA lost millions to the family of a blind man who mistook the space between subway cars for the doors, fell to the tracks and was run over by the train. Newspaper editorials called the case absurd, but the fact remains that subways are now equipped with accordion-style devices between cars-an improvement that benefits all riders.Municipalities grouse over runaway litigation, but they do nothing to prevent it. New York City recently admitted that it pays out more in settlements and jury awards to the owners of cars damaged by potholes than it spends on street repairs. If the Congressional promoters of tort reform have their way, the scalded granny, the minced blind guy and the owner of the Accord with a broken axle would have no recourse. In corporate terminology, what happened to them would simply be "too bad."Police salaries are paid by us taxpayers, but cops prowl the streets of our cities like troops occupying an invaded country. Social constraints that individuals once enforced upon one another have evaporated. The government is supposed to look out for us, but it's too dependent on money from wealthy corporations. We can't count on business to do what's best for anyone other than its top executives. Given the absence of anyone else to protect us from incompetence, idiocy and violence, lawyers are our last line of defense. Admittedly, many are opportunistic, exploitative, cheesy hacks, but they're all we have left.I just hope no one sues me over this.


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