Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ambrose Bierce, the Law, and Lawyers

I can't help but enjoy reading most anything by Ambrose Bierce.  "Bitter" Bierce, as he was justly called, strenuously criticized and lampooned everything, so far as I can tell, and this is an endearing trait as far as I'm concerned.  In The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays he targets the legal profession, among other things.

He writes what one would expect him to write, generally speaking.  To a certain extent, what he writes is unsurprising; but, we are a hundred or so years down the road from when he wrote, so perhaps his excoriation of the profession was original in its time.

He focuses for the most part on particular areas of the practice of law which presumably most irked him--criminal, domestic (divorce) and estates, and I haven't had much exposure to any of those areas, though I've had enough involvement in wills, will contests and estates to know I'd rather not be involved in them any further if it all possible.  I suspect this is the case because these areas are what would primarily attract the attention of a newspaper man back then (and perhaps now), or perhaps it is more correct to say are what a newspaper man would have been compelled to cover.

His suggestion that criminal defense attorneys be subject to cross-examination regarding their vested interest in their clients' success regardless of guilt or innocence is amusing, though I suspect no juror, then or now, would find this surprising (I personally find it surprising that such a renowned cynic as Bierce apparently found this worth noting).  More interesting to me, though, is the fact that he seems to assume that criminal defendants are virtually always--if not always--guilty of the crimes of which they are accused.

One might maintain that such an attitude should be expected from a cynic.  That may be so, but one would also expect a cynic would have a healthy scepticism regarding the ability of the state to locate and honestly prosecute someone actually guilty for a crime.  I find Bierce's furious denunciation of the fact that defendants are protected against self-incrimination to be somewhat baffling, as a result.  If all men are criminals, then it would seem prosecutors would have criminal inclinations as well as defendants--and of course their lawyers.  Prosecutors, though, don't seem to be subject to his wrath.

The law of divorce seems to have been so strange at the time he wrote I have trouble understanding it.  However, he makes an interesting argument against the rights of testators to determine who receives their estate and how they receive it, which is to say that for the most part he vilifies these rights and in some cases those who exercise them.

It is understandable that parents would want their children to receive what assets they have at the time of their deaths.  I suppose that just as a person may make whatever gifts they decide to make while alive, they may decide how their assets are to be disposed of after they can no longer gift.  But there is something disturbing and unseemly, and perhaps even macabre, about the dead excluding specific persons from having the use of assets after they have become what Bierce might call worms-meat because of some real or perceived slight in life or because they were disappointed in them while living for what may not have been good reason.  Placing conditions on access to assets after death--the dead can reach out from the grave to control the assets they once owned--can be disturbing for the same reason.  Nevertheless, the law holds wills and trusts to be controlling.

Nothing can be quite as disgusting, or depressing, as the spectacle of children fighting tooth and nail (a wonderfully evocative phrase) over the leavings of their parents.  Perhaps it would be better for the law to simply provide that assets be disbursed on death in a particular manner, regardless of the wishes of the deceased. 

But such a law, and the repeal of laws protecting defendants, would have deprived "Bitter" Bierce of a good deal of what he found despicable in the human race, and so would in some respects have deprived us of the pleasure of reading him as he ranted against our many failings.

No comments:

Post a Comment