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“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, July 24, 2016

There Are Limits

The idea that "my rights are unlimited" seems to be spreading from the "Christian martyr" set across the political spectrum:

An attorney was removed from court and taken into custody after a judge declared her in contempt for refusing to take off a Black Lives Matter pin.

Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich said Attorney Andrea Burton was in contempt of court for refusing to remove the pin in his courtroom as instructed. Burton was sentenced to five days in jail, but she has been released on a stay while an appeal is underway.

Burton will stay out of jail during the appeals process as long as she obeys Milich’s order not to wear items that make a political statement in court. If she loses her appeal, she will have to serve the five days in jail.

Milich said his opinions have nothing to do with his decision.

“A judge doesn’t support either side,” he said. “A judge is objective and tries to make sure everyone has an opportunity to have a fair hearing, and it was a situation where it was just in violation of the law,” he said.

On the face of it, this seems to me like a reasonable action on the judge's part: political statements in court, especially by an attorney for either side, can unduly influence a jury -- we've all seen how juries can be influenced by extraneous matters. And a judge has considerable leeway in determining what is potentially disruptive to the trial process.

Here's where it becomes dicey:

The Youngstown branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said its legal counsel is monitoring the case closely as it may violate Burton’s civil rights.

General principle: all rights have limits. That's a necessity if we hope to have a workable society. "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." Trite, but true.

And especially for an attorney, an officer of the court, there are constraints on free expression, especially if that free expression has no bearing on the matter at trial. The article is lacking on specifics on that score. It doesn't mention whether Burton was a defense attorney or a prosecutor. If the latter, there are real constraints: as a government official, a prosecutor must be extremely careful about putting the weight of his or her position behind a political expression in the court room.

And as it turns out, Burton knew exactly what she was doing, and it was deliberate:
"He indicated to me he didn't know if I was trying to seek attention from the news or whatever the case was, but that legally I wasn't allowed to wear it and I deferred and said that I'm respecting my First Amendment right. That I'm not neutral in injustice, and to remain neutral becomes an accomplice to oppression, Attorney Burton said. . . .

"It's an act of civil disobedience I understand that. I'm not anti-police I work with law enforcement and I hold them in the highest regard, and just to say for the record I do believe all lives matter. But at this point they don't all matter equally, and that's a problem in the justice system," Burton said.

Yeah, we all understand the idea of civil disobedience to unjust laws, but to my way of thinking, this is beyond the Pale: She's gotten carried away with herself and is really doing more damage than good to her cause. As an officer of the court, she has a responsibility to her client to focus on the matter at hand and not do anything that could disrupt the proceedings or call into question her own professionalism.

And of course, one of the basic tenets of civil disobedience is that if your going to break an unjust law, you have to be prepared to suffer the consequences. Ask Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi about that.

(Sidebar: I don't argue the fact that there is gross racial bias in our justice system, from the cop on the beat on up, and I'm sympathetic to her cause, in spite of some of the stunts BLM has pulled. But there's a time and a place.)

Here's a key point:

Attorney and community activist Kim Akins said she is worried about what happened.

“No one wearing an American flag button, no one wearing a crucifix or a Star of David would be removed, so why this particular statement bothered him so much is bothersome,” she said.

It's a sentiment echoed in the comments, both from the article itself and from the post at Crooks and Liars, which is where I ran across it: there's some impaired reasoning going on here, if people can't tell the difference between a US flag pin or religious symbol such as a cross or star of David and a pin that overtly advocates for a particular cause. Someone like Akins should know better -- she's an attorney, for crying out loud. (Not that that implies a lot of brain power. Trust me on that -- I worked for a law firm for years.)

There's a strain of incipient paranoia running throughout the comments to these articles that leads the to believe the right wing has been at least partly successful in at least one of its goals: no one trusts the courts any more. This one is a prime example:

Would the judge have thrown her in jail if she wore a "blue lives matter" pin? If not, then I smell a discrimination lawsuit against the judge to have that judge fired and jailed.

This is standard right-wing (hmm -- it almost came out as "white-wing" -- I wonder why?) reasoning: ask a hypothetical question, answer your own question with the most prejudicial answer, call for blood.

I hate to say this, but this is a prime example of political correctness run amok. It seems that looking at a matter dispassionately (which is hard, I know, but it's necessary if anything is going to be resolved) and using reason to work through to a solution is completely off the table. What I'm seeing is a bunch of people all yelling "Hey! Look at me! Me, me, me!"

(Footnote: "Political correctness" has become another right-wing dog-whistle, which is why I'm loathe to use the term: to them, it stands for "common decency," which is, apparently, a bad thing.)

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