Friday, May 25, 2007

Re: That Hellhole Issue, Phonebook Tells the Story

Back when Martin Milner wandered along Route 66 in his Corvette, he could have predicted each town’s crime rate by simply reading the local telephone book.

If the number of clergymen outnumbered lawyers, the crime rate would be low. Conversely, if lawyers outnumbered the clergy, then the crime rate would be high. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ratio of clergy to lawyers almost perfectly correlated to a town’s lawlessness.

The ratio of clergy to lawyers painted a picture of the town’s citizens and their values. People who regularly attend church are apt to follow God’s absolute laws-the Ten Commandments for example. On the other hand, people who flock to law offices often view laws as guidelines, or even suggestions, and hire lawyers to mitigate their circumstances.

In a manner of speaking, Martin Milner could have written a "Route 66" tour guide and included a chapter titled "Judicial Hellholes" based solely on phone book surveys.

If you use this survey method today, you’ll quickly notice that lawyers advertise on phone book covers as well as in the yellow pages. Daytime television advertising could well be called the "cavalcade of trial lawyer ads."

I will say this, though: melodramatic personal injury lawyer ads do complement the soap opera milieu of afternoon programming.

The so-called "respectable" law firms advertise just as heavily. They flood trade publications with image ads. On Madison Avenue, image ads are referred to as the silk purse enigma, or the more familiar "put lipstick on the pig."

The practice of law has been a growth industry ever since the Miranda decision (1966.) To sustain that growth, every aspect of the practice of law has succumbed to relativity and compromise. If a non-lawyer read former West Virginia University basketball coach John Beilein’s contract, he’d say that the coach owed WVU $2.5 million for leaving early. In the hands of skilled attorneys, however, the contract was just a starting point for negotiations (Read: more billable hours.)

The practice of law in West Virginia is a growth industry. Our venue laws encourage growth by allowing tourist litigators to spend their workdays suing in our courtrooms while whitewater rafting or skiing on the weekends.

Innovative ways to use the courts, such as medical monitoring lawsuits, have expanded the realm of the once-stodgy definition of torts. It seems that at one time in our history-perhaps before the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer went to law school-the plaintiff actually had to prove damages. Not so now on this warming globe.

When Roane County jurors returned a $400 million verdict against natural gas companies in January, two things happened. The first was national headlines; West Virginia had finally entered the big leagues of jackpot justice. The second result was that businesses across the state realized that a billion-dollar verdict is soon to happen. After all, $400 million is now a benchmark-the four-minute mile so to speak.

Several people, and that includes a few in the natural gas industry, have told me that the verdict in Tawney et al v. Columbia Natural Resources et al was a long-overdue victory for justice for mineral owners. This sounds romantic when heard in isolation. But the future effect of Tawney is unpredictable when you read it alongside the recent WV Supreme Court of Appeals ruling that a law firm (Schrader Companion & Byrd) can claim as its fee a percentage of future royalties from a mineral lease it negotiated on behalf of its client.

To me, the court’s logic in deciding the Schrader case is just plain Stephen King-scary. The Langoliers. Now playing at a law office near you!

A major criticism of West Virginia’s judicial system has been the partisan election of the judiciary. Judges have to be selected in some way. I’d rather see judges elected than trust politicians to appoint them. And that view holds for U. S. Supreme Court justices as well.

By electing judges, especially in a partisan manner, the voting public is exercising a referendum on the judicial system. And this is West Virginia’s downfall. The voters must like the system just the way it is. Otherwise, they’d vote to change it.

Is West Virginia a judicial hellhole? You can’t always judge a book by its cover. But in this case, the phone book would suggest that it is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Finding The Strength To Endure April's Cruelty

T. S. Eliot’s poem, "The Waste Land", begins: "April is the cruelest month." Were Mr. Eliot living today, he might criticize Americans for taking his imagery so literally. The third week of April will now be remembered for Blacksburg as well as Columbine and Oklahoma City.

While the news media has described the murders on the Virginia Tech campus as the worst such event in American history, I disagree with that assessment. No matter what else happens, nothing can be as disgusting as the murders and wounding, make that planned executions, of Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania last October.

Be honest. You were probably numb to the shootings on that fall day at Nickel Mines until the Virginia Tech reports recently reminded you.

In a nation gone so bizarre, one has to ask, "How can we change this behavior?"

The answer to that question might be rather simple. The killing rampages that we now accept as an everyday fact of life did not exist fifty years ago. What was it that we did then that we aren’t doing now?

This past April 19th, I attended the annual dinner of the Highland District of the Boy Scouts of America in Elkins. The district includes Barbour, Randolph, Tucker and Upshur counties. I estimated the dinner crowd at nearly 150 generous people.

When I arrived at the banquet, I told a friend, "I’ve returned to Mayberry." And I meant that sincerely. I previously worked in the Elkins area and was happy to see so many old friends and acquaintances. I also used the Mayberry reference because Elkins seemed like a safe port during the stormy weather that now accompanies the third week of April.

David C. Hardesty was the guest speaker for the evening. He spoke not as President of West Virginia University, but as a former Eagle Scout. If you have been involved in scouting, then you know that somebody’s mom volunteered to be a den mother and somebody else’s dad volunteered to be a scoutmaster. Mr. Hardesty recounted this spirit of volunteerism and community involvement in his remarks.

He also related the one-hundred-year history of the Boy Scouts. The mission of scouting has always been to teach youngsters skills. Scouting also develops values such as citizenship and personal responsibility. To "be prepared" requires much more of a young boy than any other program that I can think of.

I remember when my scoutmaster taught our troop how to build telegraph keys and wire them together. That was an amazing lesson. We marveled at being able to send clicking messages from one end of Mr. Aylestock’s basement to the other. But that was not the end of the exercise. With a telegraph key in hand, we then learned Morse code.

I know that my telegraph anecdote sounds like a quaint lesson-the kind of lesson you’d expect Andy Taylor to teach his son, Opie. But Samuel Morse revolutionized communication much more than the Internet has. To have built a telegraph system and then operated it gave me a great appreciation for the history of communication in America.

The other motto of scouting is "Do a good deed daily." Unfortunately, this generation of college students has been found by a San Diego State University study to be the most narcissistic group of its kind-ever. College professors who I know also concur with the study’s conclusion. The students, however, call their narcissism "healthy self-esteem", and they do so in a self-congratulatory manner.

Scouting, 4-H, and similar structured youth programs used to be an integral part of Plan A when it came to raising children. We as a nation no longer use Plan A. We are much too sophisticated for that homey nonsense.

We now use Plan B, or Plan C, or whatever plan it is that barely frowns on teen pregnancy or the employment of pedophiles as schoolteachers. The new plan also permits schools to spy on students with cameras rather than engage each student personally. The new plan encourages school administrators to force-feed zombie pills to hundreds of thousands of grade school kids rather than diagnose why little Johnny suffers from anxiety in the first place.

As Dr. Phil would say: "How’s that plan working?"

The answers to America’s social problems are not hidden in a cave. Nor are they known only by the Oracle at Delphi. The answers are as obvious as the noses on our faces. When Americans finally decide to look themselves in the mirror, then they will go back to Plan A.

Until then, expect more cruel months.