Monday, August 4, 2014

“You’re not killing me properly” and other legal news

I’ve often criticized government officials for completely botching nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system.  (Until my recent spate of legal education-related posts, government-bashing is pretty much what this blog has been about since I took to the keyboard with the inaugural post on judicial incompetence in 2010.)  If fact, the negligence, complete ineptitude, and even intentional wrongdoing of many police, prosecutors, and judges makes for a compelling argument against the death penalty.  But now there is a better argument: government officials aren’t even capable of killing someone properly.

We’ve known for years that the death penalty has had problems, including when and how it is pursued by prosecutors.  But it shouldn’t be that hard for the government machinery to actually kill someone – yet the bureaucrats in Arizona took 15 stabs at it, over the course of two (probably) painful hours, before finally offing a criminal defendant.  Republican politician John McCain “called it tantamount to torture.

The Badger state, on the other hand, certainly has its problems when it comes to criminal justice – for example, we incarcerate twice as many people as our neighbor to the west, despite near identical demographics and crime rates – but at least we’re not botching government-sanctioned murders; Wisconsin doesn’t offer its prosecutors the death-penalty option. 

In other legal news, a law school dean recently defended law school against the apprentice-approach to becoming an attorney (which is still available in some states, as my coauthor Amy Kushner wrote in our book subtitled Myths, Oddities, and Lies About Our Legal System).  The dean takes the familiar position that law school is good at teaching students how to argue.  But then he uses an argument so ineffective that it disproves his point.  He writes: “If you or a loved one were found to have cancer, would you want oncologists and surgeons who were educated at top universities and then were trained by experts, or ones who learned medicine entirely through apprenticeships? The answer is obvious and is no different for law than for medicine.”

If Christopher Hitches were still alive (and had an interest in legal education) I know how he would respond: “You give me the awful impression – I hate to have to say it – of someone who hasn’t read any of the arguments against your position, ever.”

The problem with the dean’s argument, of course, is that the people who teach students at medical schools went through training (both theoretical and practical) in medical school themselves.  Then they went through many years of residency where they got structured, hands-on experience under licensed specialists in their field.  Then they practiced medicine on their own for years.  The people who teach students at law schools, however, are typically not even licensed in the state where they teach, know little about that state’s law, have practiced law only in rarefied settings (e.g., big law firms with zero client contact) usually for no more than two years, often haven’t practiced law at all, and, increasingly, don’t even have a law degree.

But I didn’t need the dean to make what Above The Law is calling “the worst analogy in the long and storied history of analogies.”  I already know many law school graduates with mush-brains who couldn’t formulate an argument (or detect a flawed one) if their lives depended on it.  Law school doesn’t really have an impact on a person’s thinking.  It’s more like the old computer lingo "garbage-in-garbage-out": if you have poor critical thinking skills going into law school, you’ll emerge from law school the same person but three years older and deeper in debt (having been exposed to some irrelevant statutes and case law during the process).

Finally, my second book, Tried and Convicted: How Police, Prosecutor’s, and Judges Destroy Our Constitutional Rights, has made it into the classroom at Texas A&M University where it is required reading in some of the undergraduate criminal justice courses.  The professor tells his students that “this book has stirred up quite a bit of controversy in the discipline of criminal justice.” 

Mission (partly) accomplished. 

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