Law in Contemporary Society

An Unfortunate Alienation

-- By GraceKrasnerman - 13 June 2016

The justice system is revered as the alleged bastion of ethics in any complex society such as ours. So why is it then that those who work within the system – lawyers and judges, for example – feel knots in their stomachs when they uphold “the law”? Why is it that so many lawyers turn to the numbing medicine of alcohol after a day of supposedly seeing justice at work? Why is it that I sit here, feeling sick and nervous after reading State v. Norman, a case where the law was followed to the letter?

Before attending law school, I assumed that legislation was enacted to help people and to uphold the moral norms prevalent at the time. As an undergraduate on the other side of Amsterdam Avenue, I read Kant and Aristotle, surrounded by overly idealistic students and professors too engrained in academia to discuss what was actually happening outside the gates of our elite university. This year, I started to read cases. However, they seemed more fictitious than real; they did not fit within the idealistic bubble I was accustomed to. One case bothered me in particular, that of State v. Norman, in which an exceedingly abused woman killed her husband, who subjected to inhumane torture, prostitution, and essentially slavery. I believed she did the right thing, but the Court did not. The Court convicted her of voluntary manslaughter; I could not understand how this was supported by the “justice” system. That week I tried to wrap my head around it. I talked to my friends in law school, and out of it; those out of law school dismissed it as depressing and could not give me an answer. Nights of partying and days of half-assed schooling turned into a month of hermetic studying for finals, and then finally freedom. My parents flew up to Connecticut and I had dinner with them to celebrate the end of my finals. My mother did not drink at all, and my father barely drank – strange qualities to have as Russians. I told them how unfair some cases I learned about seemed. My father said, “Well this woman [Norman] still did something illegal, even if not necessarily wrong.” This still was troublesome: I always equated legality with morality in my head. “You shall not murder, you shall not steal” – these are both legal and moral principles. Murder is illegal, but I cannot believe that what Norman did, in saving her humanity and her freedom by killing someone who did not contribute at all to this world, is wrong. My father continued, “Right and wrong does not matter in court; neither does morality. The only question is did you break the law or not.” My mother laughed and said she does not know any ethical lawyers anyway. It made sense to me now. When my parents were born into the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, they did not possess individual rights in the sense that Americans do. Although my parents understood my indignation at some of the cases I have read in the past year, they were not as surprised as I was at what I perceived to be unjust outcomes. The reason for this, I believe, is that they were socialized in a society without an emphasis on civil rights, and without forms of relief for those wronged by the state. So they were not surprised that the state took a cold, inhumane approach to what I saw as a mentally damaged and enslaved woman driven to the only remaining solution. I understood that the law was separate from morality, and that to work within the system, lawyers must separate their working selves from their emotional ones. To operate within the law without objecting to it, and thus facing rejection from the profession, the easiest solution is alienation.

Lawyers are dedicated servants to the law, but when the law is too rigid and leans towards the political rather than the moral, lawyers have to separate themselves from their actions in order to remain in their profession. Although the product that lawyers make (an application of the law) is not industrial, and it may be a stretch to apply Marx’s alienation theory to this, this would explain the feeling in my stomach and the reason legions of lawyers are depressed and/or alcoholic, among a myriad of other mental health issues they face. Convicting Judy Norman of voluntary manslaughter is the legal solution, but it does not feel like the right one. Lawyers and the judge involved have to look at the law, letter for letter, rather than the human in front of them. Attaching to the parties in such cases is inexpedient and can produce instability in the line of decision-making, which puts the system at risk. Even though we live in the United States, and not the Soviet Union, a government is still a government, and its predominant priority is to maintain the status quo through a body of law. It does not matter if the law is right or wrong in the moral sense, but only in how it affects the stability of society, and of course, the economy. Therefore, lawyers live in a realm of alienation in which they defend criminals if they pay them enough, cannot help innocents who commit legal wrongs but not moral ones, and are at the mercy of the so-called justice system.

Our legal system does help people of course, but only certain people. People with the money to afford competent lawyers can maneuver within the system. Judy Norman was a poor, uneducated woman married at the age of fourteen in North Carolina. She was doomed from the start. Judy Norman took back her humanity and her freedom only when she broke law. I keep on thinking: if she only knew how about the imminence requirement in self-defense, she could have had a perfect defense. If she only spoke to a lawyer before the authorities, she may have prevailed. I have been inculcated, as have several of my friends, to never speak to an authority without a lawyer in the off chance that we are arrested. I doubt she received the same education.


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r3 - 13 Jun 2016 - 21:01:15 - GraceKrasnerman
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