David Plotz, journalist and editor of the on-line culture magazine Slate, takes on the California Supreme Court in an essay in his magazine, harshly criticizing the 7-0 decision yesterday to deny Stephen Glass the opportunity to practice law in the state. Glass has been attempting for almost 20 year to persuade some state that a star journalist who was exposed as a pathological liar is a trustworthy lawyer. Plotz’s attack on the opinion as smug and self-righteous says a lot more about Plotz and his field of journalism than it does about the court. It exposes the perils of a non-lawyer delving into legal ethics without even a modicum of research. Mostly, the exercise shows how far journalism has fallen, when the editor of a prestigious on-line journalistic enterprise essentially denies the importance of professionalism. “It’s a job,” he concludes about the law, trying to bring lawyers down to the depths of his own, thoroughly debased line of work.
Not that the decision isn’t ripe for criticism, for it is. In particular, the majority reasoning continues the legal field’s strange hypocrisy of applying a far more stringent standard to the character of those trying to get their licenses that it does to those who have proven themselves unworthy of holding them. The District of Columbia, supposedly one of the toughest jurisdiction regarding legal discipline, recently administered a mild reprimand to a Justice Department attorney who had been practicing on a suspended license for more than two decades. John Edwards, whose trail of lies while deceiving his dying wife and devising schemes to hide his pregnant mistress in order to gull the Democratic party into nominating him for President, has managed to avoid any discipline at all despite the fact that his continuing leave to practice law disgraces every lawyer on the planet. And, of course, the very same court Plotz derides now recently delivered the stunning conclusion that a non-citizen who entered the country illegally and engaged in years of lies to remain here is nonetheless fit to be a lawyer. (Naturally, Plotz liked that decision.) None of these are mentioned in the post.
Instead, Plotz sets some kind of record by rendering his own argument null and void in the second paragraph of his introduction. “I don’t like Steve. And I don’t trust Steve,” he writes.
Thus he announces, presumably unwittingly, that the rest of his post will be devoted to why the Supreme Court of California should have admitted to the practice of law someone he knows personally and doesn’t trust. The Court should give a man a law license—to handle clients’ money, advise them on life and death matters, set up their employment terms, organize their estates, arrange for the welfare of their dependents and loved ones, defend them against prosecution, and help normal citizens bewildered by and vulnerable to the rapidly proliferating laws, taxes and regulations that make every act in the United States, no matter how trivial, a legal risk, find protection and service in our government rather than peril—who Plotz himself agrees can’t be trusted.
What distinguishes the professions like law, the clergy, medicine, accountancy, and once, believe it or not, journalism, from mere jobs is that trust is central to their duties, societal function and very existence.
After torpedoing his own argument (and credibility) before it even begins, Plotz’s essay reveals itself as diatribe against lawyers. How can the judges condemn Glass’s honesty—heh, honest lawyers? Come on. Then, in a stunning display of unconscious contradiction, Plotz argues that the judges’ concern about Glass’s is overwrought since he is so well-recognized as a liar that every client and judge will be watching him like a hawk…so why worry? The same argument could be made for letting Bernie Madoff open shop as an investment manager or Casey Anthony as a day care proprietor. Immediately after this stunning segment, Plotz says, “Admitting Stephen Glass to the bar would help the people of California who need lawyers.” Really? Plenty of lawyers who never fabricated articles for The New Republic are having trouble finding work in California and everywhere else—people who need lawyer can find them. Moreover, nobody—nobody—“needs” a dishonest and untrustworthy lawyer.
Plotz is the editor of Slate. If he believes in Glass’s rehabilitation as much as he claims (never mind that trust thing), his course is obvious. He can hire Glass and take him back into the fold as journalist. He’s not going to do that, of course, He’s no fool.
He’s just an ethics dunce.