Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Storm of Ideas

Code of Civil Procedure section 170.6 allows a party or an attorney in a civil or criminal action in superior court to file a motion accompanied by an "affidavit of prejudice" to prevent a judge from deciding the case.  The moving party need only state, under penalty of perjury, that the judge is prejudiced against the party or attorney.  But the section does not require the recitation of facts to support the conclusion of prejudice.   Wait a second---this---oh my heavens---this permits the rejection of a judge for reasons other than a judge's prejudice… a rejection for any unstated reason whatsoever.  But that would be…. 
Enough.  Confession.  I committed perjury.  It happened in Department 1, the master calendar court of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, in 1965.  I was waiting for my first civil case to be sent out to a trial court.  The presiding judge was Donald Wright, who later became one of California's great chief justices. 
         Judge Wright called the list of cases to be assigned to trial court judges.  He called Chemerinsky v. Eastman.  The lawyers answered "ready" and he assigned the case to Judge Impossible (made up name).  The plaintiff's counsel said, "There will be an affidavit under 170.6, Your Honor."  Wright sent the case to another judge.  He then called the next case, Miller v. Star, and attorneys popped up from various parts of the cavernous Department 1 courtroom.  "Ready for plaintiffs and cross-defendants."  "Ready for defendants and cross-complainants Casner and Leach."  Judge Wright said, "This case will be sent to Judge Impossible."  In unison all the attorneys said, "There will be 170.6 affidavits, Your Honor."  This happened again in the next case called.  The attorneys drew straws to see who would file the affidavit of prejudice.    
And then Judge Wright called my case.  I answered "ready," even though I did not feel like I was.  He assigned me to Judge Impossible, and you will never guess what I said.  O.K., you guessed it.  "There will be an affidavit of prejudice under 170.6, Your Honor."  But I had never heard of Judge Impossible prior to the preceding few minutes.  Well, what would you have done?  Several experienced and respected trial attorneys in Department 1 filed affidavits.  There is no greater terror than the unknown.  I met that terror head on by avoiding it.  Under the circumstances, I felt it would be more foolhardy than courageous to take my case before Judge Impossible.  Lawyers must be highly tuned to the world about them.  They are often involved in contentious battles where the outcome is uncertain.  Success, even survival, depends on recognizing and confronting the unpleasant vicissitudes of daily life.    
I wonder how today's students can persevere in the world where as adults they must face unpleasant challenges.  In my column last month, I spoke of students demanding that their professors give them advance warning about works of art or literature that discuss possible offensive themes.  What if these students become lawyers?  They might petition courts to issue warnings before a decision:  "Caution.  This judgment may contain language offensive to the losing party.  Words such as 'damages', 'sanctions,' and 'untenable' appear with some frequency." 
Students at some universities are closing their minds to the world of ideas by objecting to commencement speakers they find objectionable.  We have all read about International Monetary Fund official Christine Lagarde, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau cancelling their university graduation speeches because of student protests.  Matt Pearce recently wrote about this phenomena in the Los Angeles Times.  He quoted columnist Michelle Goldberg who in The Nation termed such student protests as "left-wing anti-liberalism."  
Daily Journal columnist Julie L. Kessler, in her insightful column titled "The speech that never was" (June 4, 2014), argues that a vocal but small group of students "possess a frightening lack of tolerance."  Kessler is concerned about this narrow view of "enlightened intolerance."  So am I.  What if these students become future lawyers? 
I had similar worries in a column I wrote in 1991 titled "Freedom to express all points of view."  I wrote about a moot court competition at the law school at New York University.  So did the historian, columnist, and critic Nat Hentoff whom I referred to in my column.  I hope it is not immodest to quote myself.
"The presence of self-appointed enforcers to compel the expression of the politically correct point of view can have a devastating effect on the law profession.
         "Hentoff expressed his regret about the refusal of some law students at N.Y.U. to participate in moot court competition. They balked when given the assignment to argue against the petition of a lesbian couple seeking custody of a child.  The students thought it offensive to deny the lesbian couple custody because of their sexual preference. Of course it is. That's why we need lawyers. They are there to protect all points of view, however offensive. The Bill of Rights was enacted just so that politically incorrect points of view could be expressed.
         "If lawyers become intimidated by the enforcers of correct thought, then we are in big trouble. The students who refused to participate in the moot court competition because they disagreed with the principle they were assigned to argue, unwittingly sabotaged the very principles they professed to support.  When certainty of the correctness of your position causes you to silence the opposition, you have undermined your own position. You have become like your enemy.
         "If lawyers forget this, we will ultimately have a society where ideas are crimes. Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984 will have been written in vain.
         "Those who fight for minority rights, whether they be the rights of gays, blacks, Jews, women, or atheists, should be particularly sensitive to preserving the right of others to be heard, no matter how loathsome the point of view.
"By allowing the free expression of bad and even offensive ideas, we insure that good ideas flourish. It is this way that we preserve the American freedom of mind and spirit. It's something law students must learn, and lawyers must never forget."
Hentoff wrote in-depth about free speech and quoted portions of my column in his book Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee.  How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other (Harper Collins, 1992).   
But what about the perjury engendered by Code of Civil Procedure section 170.6?  Poor drafting.  A storm of ideas is a good thing.  Not to be confused with the gigantic storm that, by the time you read this column, may have become a hurricane named Arthur that ravaged the East Coast this past weekend.  Just for the record, it's not my fault.  I declare under penalty of perjury that I had nothing to do with it.

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