Monday, August 10, 2009

Judge Buckwalter Was Wrong

My opinion column from today's Philadelphia Legal Intelligencer:
Time, the Law, the Media and Judge Buckwalter
What's the significance of a tombstone proclaiming, "Unswayed by public opinion"?
And, in the 21st century, how much should we be inspired by the "rugged individualism" of those who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries?
These may seem like rather arcane questions to you. And I probably wouldn't even be asking them were it not for the fact U.S. District Court Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter cited these and other factors in defending the widely denounced 55-month prison sentence that he handed down to convicted felon and former state Sen. Vince Fumo. Buckwalter said he was inspired by the heroes and the writings of the 1700s and 1800s.
Of course my first thought in all this is: "How does a slap-on-the-wrist sentence square with the rugged individualism and frontier justice of the 18th and 19th centuries?" It seems to me that Fumo might be left to rot in jail or given over to a far worse fate if he had been tried in an earlier era.
But there's a bigger issue here and it has to do with the inability of lawyers in general and judges in particular to understand media and the modern interplay between the court of law and the court of public opinion.
When Buckwalter was growing up in rural Lancaster, Pa., television did not exist. When he went to college and law school, no one even knew what the Internet was. And for nearly 30 years now, Buckwalter has spent his life in the rarified confines of the judiciary — a world of mahogany, brass and marble where judges rule and quiet acquiescence is the norm. It's such a sheltered, powerful world that legal insiders have coined a term for the sense of unbridled authority that overtakes many of those who are cloaked in black robes. They call it "robitis."
Robitis means you do not have to pay attention to the masses. It means you don't necessarily have to ride public transportation or dirty your fingers with the daily newspaper or waste your time watching TV or log on to the Internet or even pick up the telephone. It means that you don't have to distinguish the Philadelphia Inquirer from the National Enquirer . It simply doesn't matter very much to you. You're above it, you're beyond it, you're better than that.
And robitis is like a reassuring vortex. It pulls you in further and further into an increasingly narrow and comforting world. What you don't know apparently doesn't hurt you. You don't need to be concerned with such common things.
But then you're suddenly thrust into the public arena via a high-profile case. The curtain lifts, the spotlight shines and it's clear that your view of the world no longer squares with reality.
Suddenly, you're facing the dreaded, sweaty mob. Suddenly, you're in the papers and your office is getting nasty phone calls and e-mails. Suddenly, people you don't know and don't care to know are asking tough questions. Suddenly, as a public official you're being asked to account for your behavior.
What to do?
Why, attack the media of course. Kill the messenger.
And that's precisely what Buckwalter did, or at least tried to do.
He attributed the public's outrage over his sentence to the news media, which shows you what little regard he has for the public's intelligence. He cited the media's "low reputation in the community" without noting that lawyers, judges and public officials consistently score even lower in the public's eye. He called Philadelphia a "one paper town" while ignoring TV, radio, the Internet and the newspaper you're reading right now. And, shockingly Buckwalter even seemed to suggest that there should be a "watchdog" over the free press. My goodness, has the judge even bothered to read the First Amendment? When was the last time he took a walk down the street to the National Constitution Center?
We're not living in the 18th or 19th century anymore. In fact, the 20th century is rapidly becoming rather quaint. Now, we're living in the global village that Marshall McLuhan foresaw 40 years ago when he warned us to pay attention to the media and stop looking at life through rearview mirrors. So, today if you want rugged individualism you're as likely to find it on a blog as you are on the Great Plains or in the Rocky Mountains.
Buckwalter may want to turn back the clock, but that's not an option.
Abraham Lincoln said it best: "Adjudication must follow and conform to the progress of society."

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