Secret Society, Open Court: Washington County, PA (II)
WASHINGTON, PA – JULY 13, 2018
It just so happened that my second day in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas was interesting enough to merit a whole second post; hence, you, the lucky reader, get an additional helping of my musings and ramblings. Without further ado!
Commonly, when discussing the law or legal proceedings, we use the term “technicality.” Phrases such as “we lost on a technicality,” or “the judge set him free because of a technicality” are common non-lawyer reactions to the result of a case being determined by anything except the merits themselves – actual guilt or innocence in a criminal case, for example. Of course, technicalities run the gamut from actually technical (someone missed a filing deadline by a day, for example) to quite substantive. As an example of the latter, a conviction being overturned due to evidence obtained from an illegal search might be a “technicality” but it’s certainly very consequential for the defendant and the interests of justice! Just what precisely might this dual understanding of the term “technicality” say about the place of the law and the courts in our nation?
On my second day in Washington County, Pennsylvania, I observed civil motions court. A mother and son were suing another family over an injury to the son at football practice. The defense was making the argument that the complaint the mother filed had several issues. For one, the complaint did not specify which of the several counts applied to which of the several defendants. The son had also turned 18 since the incident – the mother, by representing him now as his parent, was technically illegally practicing law, as he was no longer a minor. The son hadn’t signed the complaint and wasn’t even clearly denoted as a party to the suit.
There were more substantive legal issues with the complaint, as well. For example, the suit alleged that the parents of the child who caused the injury were liable under the doctrine of “dangerous instrumentality.” This doctrine states, in essence, that if you give someone something (classically, a motor vehicle) that you know can be dangerous in their hands, and they cause damage with it, you’re liable too – giving your drunk friend your car, as the judge in this case cited. The mother alleged that the teenager himself was a dangerous instrumentality – which earned the terrific quote from the judge, Senior Judge William Nalitz, that a “teenager is not a dangerous instrument.”
Substantive legal issues aside, the defense counsel (the defendants were well-represented by two attorneys) argued that the technical issues were enough to dismiss the suit. The mother pleaded for the opportunity for her and her son to file an amended complaint – to fix the technicalities. “This is just a mishap,” she said to the judge. “It’s nothing that can’t be remedied with a new complaint…these are all technicalities.” The judge replied strictly, “What you call technicalities are actually kind of significant.” Referring to her son, the mother concluded with, “He has the right to be here and have this opportunity.”
The judge ultimately dismissed the suit but allowed the possibility for an amended complaint to be filed. In more ways than just this example, the legal field embodies a vicious contradiction: it’s a highly technical field, practiced by licensed and well-educated professionals. But the court is a place that cuts across every level and part of society, potentially affecting every part of one’s life. It is at once a closed-off sphere, practiced in what can often resemble another language, and the center of public life. This crops up elsewhere – criminal defendants struggling to understand the legal language of what they’re being charged with, tenants and landlords alike unsure about the requirements of eviction law, and confused citizens not grasping the minutiae of the latest Supreme Court ruling, for example. The judiciary sits at the confluence of democratic forces, as public spaces where the law – our democratic will – is interpreted and expounded, and anti-democratic forces, as the domain of a small group of highly trained professionals. And all too often, the people who it will most affect are caught in that whirlpool.