What should we teach our children about justice? Should we teach them to stand up for themselves and brave the opposition until they have proven their point and cleared their names? Or should we teach them to do whatever it takes to de-escalate the situation as best they can in order to make it go away, even if it means not fighting back? Should we teach them to settle for less than a just result, because of the wear and tear it might extract on their psyches, especially when the chances of success are small?
My career as an attorney means I am in the justice business. It is my job to make sure my clients are given constitutional and legal protections and have the right to be heard before an impartial decision maker. Well, that is a fine goal, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
When I speak to my children about my various clients’ cases, I explain the applicable law in simple terms. To them, it’s always crystal clear: the law, as I explain it, applies perfectly to my client and therefore what was done to her was illegal. I’m an advocate, what can I tell you? I always convince them I should win the case.
But then I have to explain that the other side often lies under oath, that people hate my clients just because they are poor, and that even though there are laws and rules on the books, they don’t always get enforced. And worst of all, the decisionmakers can twist what appears to be a clear rule into a pretzel so they can rule the way they choose, or they can fail to understand the case entirely. This is always painful for the kids to hear, and I feel bad about being the reporter. They want to believe that justice will always prevail, and so do I.
These wrongs happen all the time. I really hate it. I do everything I can to fight against it, but sometimes there just isn’t any effective fight that can be made. Appeals are interesting, but very time-consuming and challenging. The appeals court rules say that “findings of fact” made by the trial court judge should almost always be believed , because of the legal principle that the person who actually heard the witnesses and saw their demeanor is best qualified to decide who is telling the truth. But that is not always so. Sometimes I can tell I’m going to lose the minute the judge walks into the courtroom. Good luck trying to prove judicial bias, however. Judges don’t like to find fault with other judges, because they identify with them and empathize. That’s how justice really works in our world.
How should I explain this to my children? It feels very weasely TO ME when I have to make a decision to give up on a case. They know I wouldn’t have represented the person in the first place unless I believed there was an injustice that needed to be righted. In a sense, I am teaching my children that sometimes I give up just because to keep fighting would make my life more difficult. That is really a bad lesson. Or is it?
I’ve had to teach my kids to back down, let it go and just get themselves out of a bad situation. When MYS-27 was in high school — a well-known seething pit of injustice — I actually said, “Son, I know that some bratty kid put chocolate in your hair. But the asinine ‘zero tolerance’ policy in your school dictates that both the chocolater and the chocolatee be punished equally. I am going to stand by and let that happen, because fighting it will be a long, miserable process for both of us. So I am telling you that it is appropriate to take all kinds of crap from mean students and unfair school administrators, and to smile and say, ‘Thank you sir, may I have another,’ as we learned from Kevin Bacon during his fraternity initiation in the movie ‘Animal House.’ This is life, my son; this is the real world, and I must teach you when it is time to give up, even when you are in the right.” Oh, how that killed me!
I am faced with a personal situation right now in which I have tried the “Please sir, may I have another?” way for many weeks. Now I find that things have escalated, despite my efforts to be a docile, obedient good little girl. It has been agonizing for me NOT to fight back against the injustice. I don’t know if I can continue to remain inert. Should I follow the advice I give my children — keep quiet and hope the problem abates over time? Or should I seek true justice, knowing that it will be a lengthy and stressful fight with no guarantee of success? Ten years ago, this would have been an easy question. But the older I get, the less there is of ME to spend. I need to be healthy so I can be available to my family; that is my major priority. But which will truly prove to be more taxing: to fight or to give up?