How Many Stars Would You Give the United States Constitution?

I recently bought a copy of the constitution on Amazon. My reward is an opportunity to review the document on their website. The question seems a bit obscene, given the gravity of the document, as it has asked me to rate it as if it were a motion picture. constitution

Our constitution embodies a foundational understanding of what it means to be an American. It sets forth a rule of law for us all to count on, no matter who may be in office or what should transpire.

The idea that the foundational laws of a country should be set forth in a single document was rather radical at the time it was adopted, 1788. The precedent Articles of Confederation (1781) failed to work out, and shortly it appeared the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts authored by John Adams (1780) seemed to be the most workable frame for government; a bicameral legislature, an executive and an independent judiciary.John Adams

Britain, by contrast has a series of documents starting with the Magna Carta (1215), each of which reflects the prevailing concerns of the age.magna carta
We now see a great constitutional debate in our mother country, The United Kingdom, whose Prime Minister has proposed what appears to be more of a federation like our own. uk

This is feasible. The historical documents delineating the role of the monarch, Parliament and the judiciary remains a workable collection of documents and practices subject to change from time to time.

Our Constitution, by contrast, is treated as Holy Writ, authored by now God like men referred to commonly as “the Founding Fathers” making changing it a heresy. James Madison, the documents author, was an extraordinary man. But he was still just a man.

I am beginning to have my doubts the American Revolution was necessary or has really served us in the long term. I have yet to meet any Americans who agree with me. The British generally feel differently of course. washington crossing the deleware

The British seem to be able to get things done. Sure, it is a much smaller country, but troubles here seem to perpetuate due to the weight given to the terms of a document which certainly allows for amendment, but doesn’t seem to be all that flexible until a Supreme Court is willing to either overrule itself or find a new logic to come to a different result.

Take the 2nd Amendment for example. We seem powerless to address the twin and competing needs to curb gun violence while respecting American desire to own and carry firearms. Change is out of reach. george washington armed

This is our law. It is good thing for any American to read from time to time. One might ponder the number of comma’s in the 2nd Amendment, which might be read as error and tend to cut the Founding Fathers down to a humanity that may lead to America rising from it’s bended knee before this document and addressing the challenges we face today.
sandy hook

War Crimes

Something that has always bothered me, as a lawyer, was the authority or law that allowed one nation or group of nations to charge war crimes against the combatants of another? I mean, where is it written down that it is a crime to mistreat your POW’s, or that civilians should not be killed? prisioner of war

It turns out in many places. The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, adopted July 27th, 1927, for an example.

But enforcement depends on politics. Take the Japanese treatment of our POW’s during WWII for example. Horrible. Death marches, random executions, poor conditions, little food, little shelter. Those responsible were tried and convicted of several breaches of international law.

How did the Russians treat their captured Germans in the same war? Horrible. Death marches, random executions, poor conditions, little food, little shelter. Those responsible were NOT tried and convicted of several breaches of international law.

Why? Well perhaps it was the 24 million soldiers and citizens that died during the conflict that somehow shifted the moral weight in their favor. More probably it was because the Russians were on the winning side. war crimes

Curtis Lemay, commander of our strategic bomber air forces over Japan late in the war famously said that if America had lost the war he would be tried for war crimes. This is probable. curtis lemay

In 1907 a general protocol referred to as the Hague Convention of the Laws and Customs of War on Land was adopted. Among its provisions bombardment of civilian areas or undefended ports was prohibited by naval forces. Following World War I in an arbitration between Greece and Germany held in 1927, this provision was held to extend to aerial bombardment.

Ten years later the Germans elected to ignore international law for a town called Guernica Spain. guernica

By World War II the bombing of civilian targets was common. To end the war against Japan, we the Americans, dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not before we firebombed the other wooden cities for months, creating firestorms only occasionally seen in the European Theater. Curtis Lemay was the ground officer in charge of the mission.

There were no trials about bombardment of civilian populations following World War II. How could that hypocrisy be heard anywhere?

As a human I know right from wrong. It is wrong to round up a class of persons, say the Jews, and attempt to exterminate them. That is just murder and everyone knows that. You don’t have to go to law school to know this. The War Crimes Tribunals, where they may have lacked authority, asserted this as a crime against humanity, and they were right to do so. nuremberg 2

But there was actually a precedent placing everyone on notice the killing of civilians would be called a crime. The Ottoman Empire had practiced a genocide against the Armenians during the First World War. Several nations later declared this to be a “Crime Against Humanity”.

And this satisfies the lawyer part of me that needs some law, some decision or other authority to point to in order to prosecute and punish these acts. For lawyers anything less is just victors justice.

There is No Trap Door in Superior Court

There is no trap door in Superior Court. trap door

This is not vaudeville, “Laugh In” or some totalitarian state.
HitlerAccused 1944

When someone lies in court, the opponent has to be prepared to confront them with a prior inconsistent statement made under oath somewhere during cross examination. That is not the same as arguing with them.

argument
Don’t expect the Judge to somehow magically know when a person is lying. Clairvoyance is not a requirement to take on the robes.
clairvoyant

Every month it seems someone appears in my office with a document someone has signed under oath, or declaration swearing the contents to be the truth “on pain of perjury” and declaring they have lied!

Truth is hard to find. One mans black is another mans white.

Star trek black and white

My Dad used to say that the reason we lawyers have jobs is one guy cannot see the other guys point of view. And that is why there are no trap doors or sudden death in civil or criminal law.

Modern fact finding is an advanced, yet frustrating concept. It takes time, and eventually there is some result. Better this way than by popular sentiment, strong man leadership or mob rule. French sloganguitene

The Estate of Elvis

Well of course there had to be a lawsuit when Elvis passed.

elvis

His will referenced “lawful” children being beneficiaries of his testamentary trust. Now who would that be? Children born during his marriage, certainly. Those adopted, OK, but there were none.

elvis and lisa marie

What about those Elvis may have sired on tour and never claimed? What if Elvis dies before a paternity action can be brought?

elvis in concert

Well as it turned out The King of Rock and Roll successfully defended a paternity suit in California, only to have the claimant return to haunt him post mortem, like in a horror picture. One wonders what forgettable music would be produced for that film, something from “The Trouble with Girls” perhaps?

Elvis the trouble with girls

If that Elvis love child was sired in Washington State it means that poor child should have you get nothing. Same in Tennessee apparently. Text from his Will:

..the Trustee is authorized to accumulate the net income or to pay or apply so much of the net income and such portion of the principal at any time and from time to time for the health, education, support, comfortable maintenance and welfare of: (1) my daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and any other lawful issue I might have, ….

There is no Equal Protection argument either, it’s the parent that failed the child, not the state. Yes, New Age reader, “Lawful Issue” still means something.

Indeed, every word of a will means something, and how carefully chosen each word may be will not be examined post mortem, as this unfortunate appellant tried to claim. It is presumed every word means what it says.
elvis easy come easy go
It should be noted there are about 40% of children born in America to unwed parents at the present time. Even among the highly educated, it seems an acceptable practice. It’s remarkable people who clearly love their children simply chose to ignore great bodies of law that will have an impact upon them should they perish without taking care of matters.

What do you say to this child? Return to Sender?

elvis stamp
So, for those that presume the law has caught up with your Brave New World of family, take care to ensure terms are not thrown around in your will like “lawful” when you mean “all”.

Regardless of new concepts of family, people who have had children without benefit of clergy also want their offspring to say kind things about their parents when they pass, perhaps the way Elvis would end a concert:

Thank ya, Thank ya vury much.

elvis grave

The Power of Myth at Death

Neptune
What ends up happening with a mans estate is often just a question of how strongly a myth about “what ought to be” is held by those who survive him, rather than what it says in black and white in the will.

This goes far beyond the “what Dad really wanted” comment I hear, literally, every day in my office and am powerless to use as evidence.

images rolling rock

Instead I refer to the mythical powers people assume they have upon the death of another. Conduct they would never dream of adopting when the man was alive suddenly becomes the standard for these new demi-gods.

centaur

First it is the personal property that disappears. The thought process must be “He doesn’t need this any more” or the more morally justified “I better take this for safekeeping”.

What disappears? Guns of course, jewelry ( often a ring ), watches and other valuables but even step stools and kitchen knives. I am not making this up. The Ring

Next comes the money. Often people claim to have been told by the decedent the life insurance is “for” someone else than is named in the policy. This may be true but it is a myth that the benefactor will do the right thing every time without a trust actually being drafted.
Frodo

Worse is the personal representative ( or executor ) who, upon gaining access to the funds of the departed become a Gollum-like creature, cursed with the evil ring that bends the mind to the dark side and a bright side; a schizophrenic.
gollum

On the surface Gollum is a fiduciary taking great care of the estate. But alone, the personal representative assumes special powers which, after making certain incantations, can rationalize use of the funds of the estate for personal purposes while the rest of the heirs sleep through the process.
wizard
Often myth infects those waiting for the money. Memories of how the personal representative behaved on any given occasion in the near or distant past which might imply a likely failure to act with strict adherence to the terms of the will and duties imposed by law somehow become fact, and extrapolated into current, on going theft of the estate.

Gollum 5

But this is not without some basis, even if it is not theft that occurs. For example other myth frequently encountered is that a “good person” who is named as personal representative is not necessarily up to the task of managing not only the assets of the estate timely, but also managing the other myths the heirs named in the will have preloaded into their minds which activate as the news of the death spreads.
Frodo 2

Objectivity is often the first casualty in probate. If you happened to be named personal representative of an estate in a will, take a deep breath and consider the evidence before you, not the bias of your mind. Also consider declining the appointment. Stay in the Shire, away from the ring.

An Unprobated Will Is a Dead Letter

So you have been named as the executor or personal representative in your uncles will. Great. Jefferson County Courthouse

Go to his bank and show them the will and try to get his money. Good luck. They will tell you to come back with Letters Testamentary from Superior Court.

Until a court declares the will to be the last will and testament of our departed, it is as dead as they are. In other words, the Court is the only authority for declaring a will should be followed.

Consider other possibilities. What if there are other wills? Maybe the one your uncle left with you is not the last will.  Perhaps there is a codicil. Anyone with an original will must surrender the document to the Court within 30 days of death so these things can be cleared up.

Probate is not a bad thing. Neither is a will. They just have to go together to mean anything.

Juror Number 12 Never Returned, No She Never Returned

I read an article in my hometown newspaper today about juror misconduct leading to the guilty getting away with crime.

In one case the jury had deliberated for 2 hours and decided to take a break. Juror #12 never returned, the entire trial was over with no verdict, a mistrial. Now the state has to decide whether to spend the states resources to prosecute or cut the accused a deal. I am betting on the latter because that is what happened in another case of juror misconduct.

In the second case the accused was charged with a sex crime against his own daughter. The juror decided to conduct his own internet research on the nature of these cases at home during the trial. This effort to enhance what competent evidence was adduced at trial cost the state the verdict and meant the 6-year-old would have to testify all over again. After all the man has a right to face his accuser, twice it seems.

Instead the guilty plead to a lower charge and will spend about a third of the time in prison he would have otherwise spent.

 We doctors of the law spend a lot of time with the Rules of Evidence. We are careful about making sure the evidence is trustworthy, and candidly, we don’t really need any help. Some of the least trustworthy evidence I have seen is what someone decides to post on the internet, free from the vigor of cross-examination.

Like the Rules of Evidence, our system of laws has been developed over generations to be as fair and competent as possible. We need 12 good citizens to believe in that system and make a decision based on what they hear.

But good citizens seem to be in short supply. We are apparently so full of our rights we need not care about our civic duties.

Meanwhile I hope Juror #12 had a good afternoon because no one else did, she never returned and her fate is yet unlearned. It is good I am not deciding what to do about Juror #12.