Merry-go-Round of Justice

While hunting down my next vehicle on a used-car lot recently, I happened to catch a glimpse of a large merry-go-round parked among the trees and bushes of the plant nursery next door.

The sight whooshed me back to 1986, 28 years ago. That was my merry-go-round. The very one. An elaborate antique from the Netherlands once worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instantly, its artificial cheeriness re-issued the flavor of guilty triumph in my mouth.

Every litigation lawyer eventually loses a case that should have been won—and wins a case that should have been lost.

The case I lost that should have been won still torments me: the little girl who should have been placed in my wonderful clients’ care turned thirty last month. Every year on her birthday I wonder and hope that she survived the tender ministrations of the governmental foster care to which she was instead consigned. That sorrow returns every August as it doubtless haunts my clients all year. We have both been robbed of our faith in justice.

The merry-go-round twirled at the center of the case I should have lost but won. It centered on the question of what constitutes marital property when a valuable item has been moved from a jurisdiction where the law says one thing to another place where the laws are quite different. My client was ecstatic: I had won so spectacularly that he even got my fees back; the case cost him nothing! The merry-go-round twirled on in its new home. Too bad for the spouse! Get a better lawyer next time!

You’d think such a triumph would make me happy. In the first flush of practice, it did—for a while. Yet I felt robbed of a part of my life I had thought incorruptible—a sense of justice. It disturbed me profoundly to see how the very machinations of a justice system inherently corrode one’s ideals, wearing them down until they are barely recognizable.

My merry-go-round sits silent and faded now. The organ music that jangled out songs of Europe’s golden culture is stilled; the gilt of the horses’ painted harnesses chipped and dulled.

You can clamber onto the merry-go-round of justice at many points in the circle of life but you can’t control where you will be forced to dismount. As you stagger away from the pretty horses, slightly dizzy from the repetitions, you cannot help but feel cheated of that one more go-round you should have been allowed, the final revolution that would, surely, have deposited you closer to justice.

It is said that lawyers are the unhappiest group of people in our society. Litigators, especially, drink, smoke or work themselves to death, fumbling ever less certainly for a handle on that elusive horse on the merry-go-round of justice, the one that inevitably stops at the right place.

I do happier work now, writing, publishing, educating—work that doesn’t rob me of precious hours of life. Mentally, I pat my horse on its nose. Good horse. It stopped at the right spot, after all.


Featured image by Jeroen Moes. Image found here. Shared under a Creative Commons license.

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