Friday, January 1, 2010

Norm Pattis: Another Year In The Trenches

Norm Pattis: Another Year In The Trenches "Whatever you do will be insignificant but it is most important that you do it." --Gandhi

An excerpt from Norman Pattis, "Another Year in the Trenches" that captures the sorrow and strength this job takes sometimes. It is a powerful meditation on why we work in this calling of criminal defense and it a good read over new year's weekend when we all seem to feel that need to sum things up, reflect, and recharge for another year.

It all seemed simple a couple decades ago. The adversary system tested the truth. The state brought charges. Trial ensued. A jury decided not so much guilt or innocence as whether the proof was sufficient to convict. On the civil side, parties claiming injury could seek recompense. More strangers deciding destiny. And at the center of it all, a contemporary Odysseus, a wily lawyer of many strategies. Over the years, I thought, I will become stronger, wiser, better able to master the fates contesting in the well of the court.

I did not count on becoming a friend of sorrow. Or fatigue. Or seeing clients put guns to their heads to avoid the consequences of a judge's scorn. Or mothers kneeling at my feet holding my hands weeping in a crowded hallway and begging me to do something for their son. Or responding to emails telling me how hard it was to keep from swallowing a jar of pills to make the night go away. I never thought I'd see so much suffering. I thought I would be able to prevent it from happening or make it stop. I thought I would be a hero.

But no one is a hero to a client spending his life behind bars.

For many years, Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost was hero enough for me. "Better to reign in hell then serve in Heaven," he told his dispirited ranks as they descended to Hell. The proud defiance energized me. Yes, I thought, far better to be in Hell -- with all my friends. But I didn't realize that Hell was a real place, a place filled with broken people who pay their fees for counsel in lumps of sulphur.

Law students are taught about clients who bargain in the law's shadow. Reasonable people populate the textbooks on torts. The penal code strives to hold people accountable for the consequences of intentional acts that cause harm. But as the years go by these perspectives on the conflicts filling the courts ring hollow. These lucid fictions collapse against the ever present weight of the irrational. Law is not the rule of reason in human affairs; law is fear's fiction slapped against the gaping wounds of those incurably injured.

As the year ends, I find myself combing through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looking for context. All these broken people. How do they fit together? What do they expect of me? A stray line from Harold Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics yields perspective: "The pathological mind, if one may indulge in a lame analogy, is like an automobile with its control lever stuck in one gear: the normal mind can shift."

And I realize at once that all these rumbling gears are active in me as well. Mine still shift, or so it seems. But as I read through the DSM-IV-TR, I know that nothing human is really foreign to me, or to any lawyer. And hence the sorrow.

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