Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance”

Stockton, California has garnered some attention lately for the ignominious distinction of being the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy. When I first heard the reports—about how years of fiscal mismanagement, coupled with the housing-market crisis, meant that the city was unable to pay its workers, pensioners, and bondholders—I winced. Sure, the news was bad. But my wincing really had more to do with my own private associations with the name.
I once had a client who had a business in Stockton, CA. It was a peculiar business, too. But since he had other peculiar businesses to worry about, and since he was based in Texas, he had entrusted that particular peculiar business primarily to “management.” After all, “management” was personally related to one of my client’s business partners. But at some point “management” started engaging in various shenanigans, including pocketing money meant to pay various vendors and contractors. The vendors and contractors who were not being paid got upset. Some of them filed lawsuits, which were duly served on “management.” Management, however, responded by tossing the papers in the trash. The subterfuge was finally revealed one Christmas season when my client learned that two default judgments had already been entered against his company and a motion for sanctions was pending in a third lawsuit. He came to me for help, although I knew little about California civil procedure, even less about trying to undo default judgments under California state law, and nothing about the town of Stockton.  I admit that, as that new year dawned, I was not favorably disposed to a certain California burg.
I’ll spare you the suspense: the story eventually had a happy ending after a showdown in Birmingham, a very different burg. But Stockton remains a symbol in my imagination. In my mind “Stockton” serves as a kind of shorthand for how exasperating California’s judicial system is and how easily a little misplaced trust can cause all hell to break loose.
Which reminds me of my most favorite bit of Shakespeare: King Lear.  
In Lear, an entire kingdom is dismantled by the king’s decision to trust the wrong folks with power. And while it is okay to think of Lear as a symbol, a phenomenon that embodies certain insights about human perfidy, it is not okay to see the town of Stockton that way. As a character in Lear explains, this is just “the excellent foppery” of human beings who frequently manufacture signs and symbols and endow entities with significance they do not deserve. And in Lear, Edmund the Bastard suggests that humans frequently play this cognitive game as a way of getting themselves off the hook for their own bad behavior:
 . . . we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!
Of course Stockton is not responsible for the events that I associate with the town; just as the stars are not responsible for the bad choices I have made. And any legal argument that relies on these kinds of facile correlations should be laughed out of court. Yet, surprisingly, a person does not have to rifle through too many legal briefs to find instances of false correlatives, hasty generalizations, unsupported causal connections. But if you can take the time to root them out and expose them, mostly, such arguments won’t fly in a legal context. (They only work in politics thereby ensuring that Stephen Colbert has lots of material with which to work. )
Lear really has many lessons applicable to lawyering even if (or because?) it is Shakespeare’s cruelest play. And because August is the cruelest month in Central Texas, with its relentless parade of 100-degree days, I am going to dedicate this month to probing this one play’s “darker purpose.” (I.1.37)

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