Modern Justice

     I got a firsthand look at the Mexican justice system after I had a little car accident down there. I was a newspaper correspondent and pretty well up on Mexican law.
     The first thing I did was flee the country.
     The Napoleonic Code might have worked fine for Napoleon, but I ain’t Napoleon. None of this “guilty until proven innocent” for me.
     Fortunately, I was living in Sonora, so I could flee justice in my dented car. From a cheap hotel in Arizona I called an attorney I’d met down there. He said he’d make some calls, then called back and told me not to worry about it.
     Won’t they throw me in jail till the case is over? I said.
     He told me not to worry about it.
     So I drove back and the next day he took me to the Halls of Justice. It was in a big old stone colonial building like you’d see in a Zorro movie. Immense rooms, high ceilings with slowly rotating overhead fans, ancient desks, worn wooden chairs and benches. My attorney disappeared, reappeared, told me not to worry about it and to wait until I was called, and he left.
     I asked him twice to bill me but he wouldn’t charge me a centavo.
     Pretty soon they called me into another immense stone room: more giant fans turning slowly overhead, more ancient desks and wooden chairs worn smooth by generations of butts. And along every wall, stacks and mountains of onionskin paper. Not in boxes, not in files, just stacked up, slumping down, stacks on top of stacks, paperslides spilling from the walls. There must have been a million sheets of paper, dating back to the Revolution. How could you find a file in that ancient avalanche? How could you find anything? It looked like a scene from a Borges story.
     Two secretaries sat, each at her own desk, each behind an enormous manual typewriter, with a platen the size of a rolling pin. They were typewriters from Brobdingnag.
     One secretary inserted three sheets of paper and two carbons into the immense platen and asked me what happened, typing as we spoke.
     “Do you consider the accident was your fault?” she asked.
     “No,” I said.
     “A bit your fault?”
     “No.”
     “Perhaps the tiniest bit your fault?”
     “Perhaps the tiniest bit,” I said. column continued



     She said someone would call me. I would meet the other guy and we would work it out, “so there will be no problems.”
     That’s what happened. Between you and me, the accident was the other moron’s fault – not this moron, the other moron – but I agreed to pay him $50 every two weeks until his damages had been paid. There was no judge, not even a lawyer. Nor did anyone say what his damages were. I paid the $50 every fortnight for a while and when I thought I had paid him enough I stopped. And nothing happened. How could anything happen? The record of the case was already layers deep in onionskin, somewhere in that immense room.
     So it worked out fine, though as a legal system, I’d say it’s got some flaws.
     Yet it appears that that’s the sort of legal system we are sliding toward in the United States.
     An August report from the American Bar Association describes the insane and crippling funding shortages that politicians, state and federal, are inflicting on our courts.
     At least two murder charges were dismissed in Georgia because the state couldn’t give the men a speedy trial.
     New Hampshire canceled all civil jury trials for a year for lack of money.
     Eighty federal judgeships are vacant, 16 of them on appeals courts, because Republicans refuse to confirm, or even hold hearings, on judges who are not dinosaurs.
     The ABA says that a fully funded justice system would require 1 to 2 percent of a state budget, and that nearly all that money would go for personnel, yet states won’t even do that.
     The courts are citizens’ last line of defense from a craven and vicious Congress and swinish state governments. Time and again, in civil rights above all, the courts have not so much led the way as prevented a contemptible deluge from overwhelming us.
     It’s no secret who wants to cripple the courts, and why. And according to the ABA report, they’re doing a pretty good job of it.
     I believe today’s governors of Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas, Alabama, Georgia and other states, and a sickly majority of the U.S. House, and their major campaign contributors would love to see a U.S. justice system like the one I saw in Mexico: with so few people and resources that judges can’t even find the files.

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