Friday, October 9, 2009

Amy Bach's "Ordinary Injustice"

Amy Bach, a member of the New York bar, has written on law for The Nation, The American Lawyer, and New York magazine, among other publications. For her work in progress on Ordinary Injustice, Bach received a Soros Media Fellowship, a special J. Anthony Lukas citation, and a Radcliffe Fellowship.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, and reported the following:
For eight years I sat in criminal trial courts across America and watched how smart, committed hard working professionals routinely act in ways that fall short of what it is people in their position are supposed to be doing -- and not even realize that anything is missing; or that their behavior has devastating consequences for regular peoples’ lives. This is ordinary injustice: Mistakes become routine and the legal professionals can no longer see their role in them.

So how is it that they stop checking each other? In short, they become more attached to each other than making the adversarial system of justice work. One of the people featured is Hank Bauer. Bauer was handsome and winning. He loved his city of Troy, New York. And to walk the streets with him was accompany a celebrity. When I first met him in 2005, he had recently won a landslide election to city council president. But what intrigued me was that just months before the New York State Judicial Commission had kicked him off the bench as a city court judge. The Commission had charged him with 51 gross infractions including instances of excessive sentences, coerced guilty pleas, excessive bail, and failure to notify defendants of their right to counsel.

What was happening in Troy that so many in Troy were able to turn a blind eye to gross injustice? One attorney, on page 99, explains that Bauer was the type of judge who would help a lawyer out. For example, he remembered how Bauer helped the most beleaguered of clients, a toothless prostitute who kept getting rearrested. When she was arrested, he would release her. He felt sorry for her. “He did not suffer from what they refer to as black robe disease,” this attorney explains. Bauer could be fair and helpful.

The problem was that this fair treatment didn’t happen across the board. On the last line of page 99, I allude to the treatment of John Casey, a rail thin man that can be seen sitting on park benches drinking. On two different occasions, Casey was arrested for misdemeanors and Bauer didn’t assign a lawyer. And then, the judge pleaded him guilty without his knowledge and without Casey’s presence in court. This couldn’t have happened if the entire legal community hadn’t looked the other way when their interests weren’t being addressed.
Read an excerpt from Ordinary Injustice, and learn more about the book and author at the Ordinary Injustice website.

--Marshal Zeringue