Laying Down the Law

Mrs. Poobah was called up for jury duty this week. Because of the tremendously high number of no-shows in California, we each receive at least one summons per year - sometimes more if the Feds decide they have a politician or Mafia don to prosecute. While I'm not usually doing the jurisprudence dance of happiness when I get a summons, I don't mind serving. I figure it's something I can give back to society-at-large while providing a small sense that I might be able to right some wrongs in the world.

Truth, justice, and the American way! It's Supoobah!

I've spent more than my share of time hanging around court rooms. Between jury duty and cases covered as a reporter many years ago, the ebb and flow of the courtroom is a familiar one. I've seen good lawyers and bad (although many claim there's no such thing as a good lawyer). I've seen my share of good judges and bad (including one who excused a warrantless wiretap as "bad phone service"). Thankfully, I haven't seen any quite as outrageous as the one recently convicted of pleasuring himself with a penis pump during trials - although I do give him props for his orgasmic inventiveness.

But jury duty can also be a chore. Here in California, the pay rate is so abysmally low that anyone who isn't covered by jury duty pay from their employer is out of luck. The pay doesn't cover parking, public transportation, or lunch in my county. While you may be excused if you can show economic hardship, most judges take a pretty dim view and demand more than ample proof. In the end, good citizens performing a civic duty become one more victim in whatever crime was committed. It brings new meaning to the old saw about being tried by a jury of people too stupid to wiggle out of the chore (and get charged for the privilege to boot).

It's at times like this that I reflect on the law as a concept. In its best and purest form, it's a fair system designed to neither support nor attack one side over the other. But, can also be a labyrinth of checks and balances that is by turns delicate or ham-fisted depending on the case. The one who wins isn't always the one who is right, but simply the one who has the most convincing line of bullshit. Sometimes it's difficult to find the justice in any ruling because the manure is so thick.

Now I'm a pragmatist. I know these disputes would turn ugly without a system of laws to contain them. One need only look at Iraq or a dozen other global hot spots to see what happens when a justice system fails. However, sometimes I reflect on how useless laws just seem on their surface.

I mean, think about it. Do we really need to codify murder as something that's a bad thing? It seems pretty self-evident to me, but then I'm not a twisted loon with too much time on his hands, a bad crack hangover, and ready access to a crossbow.

Do we really need laws against stealing? We all agree it isn't OK, yet we have thousands of laws not only banning it, but describing the finest points of what constitutes theft. It seems simple enough. Person A has something and Person B covets it so badly they're willing to bonk Person A on the head and take it. Where's the rub?

Well, it's usually in some convoluted law that allows immoral behavior on some levels and not others. For example, we don't have a law that forces companies to lower retail costs when their costs go down. Is that stealing? The company would argue no, it's a profit margin that's desperately needed for an inflated CEO bonus package. The person who's paying $3 per gallon for gasoline would argue Exxon's taking unfair advantage and, in essence, lifting some change out of their pocket.

Even if we concede the need for laws, why aren't they simple, like the Ten Commandments? Without starting a cultural war here, you do have to admit they cover most moral scenarios and are strikingly beautiful in their simplicity. "Thou shalt not steal." I like the sound of that. Simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. "Exxon, thou shalt not steal so get your money grubbing fingers out of my pocket and leave me the hell alone. I don't care where you raise the money for the bosses new yacht, but it shouldn't be from me"

Somehow, I don't think Exxon's large team of legal beagles is going to buy the argument. I'm still amazed about how they legally sneak that CEO pay thing by, but who am I to judge?

Laws are the perfect example of why human enterprises so typically run amok. You get a few greedheads, psychotic killers, and NAMBLA members and they ruin it for the rest of us. At first we construct a few simple rules like the Commandments and then discover - HORRORS! - these shitheels don't come to heel. "Laws? Laws? We don't need no stinkin' laws!"

Next, we beef the commandments up by inventing a few punishments like an eye for an eye, stoning, or the favorite of jolly Spanish Inquisitors - disembowelment. From there, we leap off and start inventing more and more detailed laws to force the bad to be good. Hanging, beheading, poison gas, or the prick of the last hypodermic the criminal will ever feel have all come and will all eventually go. Yet, the bad are still bad and the good are left cleaning up their mess. You can look at that and see how essentially useless the whole affair is.

More crime, more law, more law, more crime, ad infinitum. We've got entire libraries full of laws - many of which tangle and overstep each other so that even the good have problems following all the rules. The whole thing boils down to something the Omnipotent Dad is fond of saying:

"Laws keep honest people honest."

So maybe that's the best we can do.

Bring it On!

The Poobah also appears at Bring it On!

Tech Tags:

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Thursday, September 07, 2006

AddThis Social Bookmark Button