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The Design Consumer: It’s time we take a long look at the legal system
MacKenzie, Jeff
Jeff MacKenzie

The law is a maw with abuse in its claws: ... Arthur C. Clarke once described us as “a nation of engineers run by lawyers” —a critical comment on the ills that beset our society.

Indeed, jurisprudence spawned by the Constitution fills thousands of volumes, presented in esoteric terms harking back to ancient Greek and Roman and English common law. The layman ensnared in its clutches is usually helpless.

So professional interpreters trained in its arcana unravel the mystery for the rest of us.

We depend on the lawyers.

They would have it no other way.

Unfortunately this dependence has been exploited to the extreme, and in many places is a drag on everyday life and commerce.

Yet we need laws. 

“Laws are there to keep the good guys honest,” an architect once told me. Arguably the rule of law enshrining freedom of expression is what has drawn millions of immigrants and refugees to our shores.

Of course, some would say it’s the Benjamins — the prospect of acquiring and keeping more of those magic papers, enjoying property protections by law unknown in much of the world, where despots may take them on a whim.

Some truth in all of that.

Yet there are also existential truths evolving these attractive features into a monster not easily tamed.

Here are a few along with a short summary of their abuses:

There is real estate law: A monstrously complex vehicle for changing real property ownership. Lawyers preside over a transfer ceremony called a “closing,” with a raft of documents of mysterious provenance — a process so recondite that exhaustion is a common feeling upon completion.

In fact, dependence on lawyers in such events is almost total.

And there is patent/copyright law: Designed to protect inventors and artists from exploitation — process evolved and refined by very high-priced lawyers.

And there is criminal law: Thousands of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges have dockets so clogged that plea bargaining is the norm. To proclaim innocence is frowned upon — they’ve got these dockets, you see — and thousands are given a Hobson’s Choice: Accept a guilty plea, a fine and often only weeks in jail. Or go to trial and face years plus time in jail awaiting trial if bail money is not available. And lawyers’ fees.

And there is tort law: Civil lawsuits, monetary penalties but no jail time. In our system, one may sue another for any reason. If spurious enough (a comment overheard disparaging one’s attire, or suing an election board for fraud without corresponding evidence) the courts may reject them.  

But the judge, and the plaintiffs and defense attorneys will be paid. 

And the tort system is just as abusive in the other direction: Author John Grisham’s excellent book,”The King of Torts” describes a subculture of class action legal firms that feed on slip-ups by large companies and pursue jury selection and attack ads in the most venal way. It’s a work of fiction, but truth resonates on its pages.

And there is treaty law: Used to displace and disinherit Native Americans from the lands of their ancestors. A massive scale of ethnic cleansing. In every case the tribes were promised the law would protect them.

It didn’t, and carpetbagging lawyers made killings throwing them off their land.

And there is the law of eminent domain: Created for states to seize land (with compensation) for roads, railroads, airports and other public interest works.

This system is also subject to abuse, with small businesses and landowners displaced in favor of malls, big box stores, and stadium parking lots.

All deemed in the public interest due to an increase in the tax base.

Resistance manifests in civic meetings and in the courts. It’s often futile. Expensive legal talent can overwhelm it in mass filings and technicalities. 

Of course, not all aspects of legal systems are bad. Most were created for more efficient functioning of society. 

And it has its admirable proponents. My personal lawyer is a delightful guy, devoted family man and apparently resistant to the venality infesting his profession. He has given good advice on matters of will and property since we landed in Covington.

Is he an anomaly? Not sure. I have known lawyers of a different ilk whose meter always seemed to be running.

It’s past time for us to address the legal system as a whole and consider remedies.

America is a hodgepodge of states, cities and counties  with different takes on this issue. 

Which is good. Different approaches can be tried, evaluated and distilled into useful, user-friendly systems. 

And we can learn from successful nations overseas. The Swiss canton system manages three very different cultures — French, German and Italian — under one orderly banner. The Swiss have lawyers, but their duties are subdued and integrated. 

Norway has “a very successful criminal justice system with low prison rates and low recidivism” — per The National Law Review. 

Local systems, where most citizen/lawyer interface occurs, are as varied as the weather and often as dependable. By nature they are subordinate to state governments, so any attempt at reform must originate there. 

Currently no classification system evaluates worldwide local governance using the same metrics. There are some obvious appeals: Town meetings, New England style, give anyone interested a chance to participate but don’t work well for larger cities. Government by referendum has been extant in California for decades with mixed results.

Internationally, local governments in India, Australia and Africa are as varied as the cultures therein. All have optimistic goals. Most — like those in the U.S.  — suffer from funding deficits relative to the services they are tasked with. If a local tax base cannot afford it, then infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, etc.) must come from the state, with equitable statewide distribution of funding. 

Reform of legal structures will nonetheless never achieve efficiency unless exploitation by unscrupulous lawyers is controlled. 

Jeff MacKenzie, the Design Consumer, examines issues of design — be they objects or systems — all are designed and all are products the citizen consumer uses.