It could be argued that the hearing (it’s not a trial) that serves as the dramatic climax to “Miracle on 34th Street” is the most memorable courtroom scene in movie history. That tells us something, though I’m not sure what. A more legally and ethically absurd spectacle would be difficult to imagine.
When we last saw Kris Kringle—if that indeed is his name—he was preparing to go to a hearing in which his sanity would be determined by a judge. (Insert Marx Brothers “Sanity Clause” joke here.) Lawyer Fred Gailey actually quits his law firm to take on the case, which he is handling pro bono. The hearing will he presided over by a judge played by Gene Lockhart, who has impeccable Christmas movie credentials, having played Bob Cratchit in one of the adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”
The logical, legal and ethical aspects of the story go off the rails quickly, never to return. Mr. Macy orders Sawyer to have the case dropped, which makes no sense: if Sawyer were suing Kris for assault and battery, of if Macy’s had pressed criminal charges, Macy would have some say. But this is the state of New York saying that Kris is a threat to himself and others because he’s deluded. It’s a state matter now.
Sawyer goes to Fred and tries to get him to drop the case, saying “I represent Mr. Macy.” What, he’s a lawyer now? Not only does Macy have no role in this matter, Fred’s defending Kris, not prosecuting the case.
When Sawyer mentions that Macy’s wants to avoid publicity, Fred sees a little light bulb go on in his skull. “Very interesting,” he says out loud. “Publicity. Hmm. That’s not a bad idea! If I’m going to win this case… I’ll have to have plenty of public opinion!” Except that’s unethical. From New York’s Code of Professional Conduct, which wasn’t in force when the film was made but the principles were:
DR 7-107 [1200.38] Trial Publicity.
A. A lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, or associated in a law firm or government agency with a lawyer participating in or associated with a criminal or civil matter, shall not make an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in that matter….
Saying that one’s client will need publicity to influence public opinion is a clear statement of intent to violate the spirit if not the letter of the ethics rules. Fred breaches the rules again when he goes to see the judge to persuade him not to sign Kris’s commitment papers. In an adversary proceeding, a lawyer must not meet with a judge without opposing counsel present; that an ex parte communication, and strictly forbidden. Of course, it’s also unethical for the judge to let him do it.
That’s not all in the realm of judicial ethics. After suggesting that the fact that Kris says he’s Santa Claus makes his insanity a forgone conclusion, Judge Harper, who is apparently an elected judge (a situation I regard as a “pre-unethical condition”) is visited by his campaign manager, Charlie, an old pol played by none other than William Frawley, now immortal for co-starring in “I Love Lucy” as Fred Mertz. He suggest that Harper withdraw from the case:
“This Kringle case is dynamite. Let some judge handle it that isn’t coming up for reelection..I’m no legal brain trust. I don’t know a habeas from a corpus. But I do know politics. That’s my racket. I got you elected, didn’t I? And I’m gonna try to get you reelected….You’re a Pontius Pilate the minute you start!”
Then the judge’s grandchildren make a convenient entrance, and snub him because he’s being mean to Santa. Later, when the hearing somehow is turned into a referendum on whether Santa is real, Charlie returns with a dire warning:
I don’t care what you do with old whisker puss… but if you rule that there’s no Santa Claus… you better start looking for that chicken farm. We won’t even be able to put you in the primaries….All right. Tell them the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers. The kids don’t hang up their stockings. Now, what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that. So they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now you got the C.I.O. And the A.F.L. Against you. And they’re gonna adore you for it. And they’re gonna say it with votes. And the department stores will love you, too. And the Christmas card makers. And the candy companies. Oh, Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fellow! And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they take in a fortune. But you go ahead, Henry. You do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there’s no Santa Claus. But if you do, remember this: You can count on getting just two votes: your own and that district attorney’s out there!
Can we say “conflict of interest”? Sure we can—the screenwriter apparently can’t, but we can. This is a screaming conflict, and if Judge Harper’s judgment regarding Kris’s case is going to be affected by the considerations Charley listed, he has to recuse himself. The fact that many elected judges don’t recuse when they have a direct personal interest in the outcome of a matter before them is a topic for another day.
Incidentally, Kris’s case is supposedly being heard by the New York Supreme Court, which would not hold such a hearing today. Now hearings like the one involving Kris would be handled by New York City’s “Mental Hygiene Court,” but whether jurisdiction fell to the state Supreme Court in in the 1940s, I haven’t been able to determine. [Pointer: Catherine McClarey]
Chastened by Charlie, Judge Harper refuses to rule that there is no Santa Clause, and says he’ll hear evidence on both sides. Fred immediately calls Mr. Macy to the sand, who, when asked if he believes Kris to be the real Santa Claus, lies through his teeth, under oath, and says yes.
Gailey can’t ethically allow him to do this. All state ethics rules require a lawyer to avoid presenting false evidence and perjured testimony, which this clearly is. A lawyer might (as many have in similar situations) argue that he can’t say for certain that Macy doesn’t really believe Kris is Santa, but that a dodge, and a dishonest one.
Next, Fred calls the prosecutor’s young son to the stand. There are so many things wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin. The judge is obligated to refuse to let the kid testify: he isn’t a material witness, nor an expert, nor does he have any information with a bearing on Kris’s competence. The lawyer’s sole purpose in calling the boy is to discredit the opposing attorney, but attorneys are not parties, and what an attorney believes about a case is absolutely irrelevant. Attorneys don’t advocate what they believe; it’s what their clients want that counts. Not only is it unethical to try to impeach an opposing attorney, it’s meaningless.
At the same time, Fred is intentionally creating a conflict of interest for Mara, who represents the state. He can’t zealously cross-examine his own son. The prosecutor has no choice but to hand-over the job of grilling the boy to an assistant, but he doesn’t. He just looks embarrassed and lets the child make him look like a hypocrite, which he is not. The public in “Miracle on 34th Street” doesn’t comprehend that; the public in 2020 still doesn’t understand that lawyers do not endorse the positions of their clients, and should not be assumed to be doing so.
As he leaves the stand, Mara’s son reminds his father that he wants a football helmet, and Kris shouts, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it!” Wait: how does he know the kid will get it? He can’t promise that; he has no control over it at all, especially if the judge sends him to Bellevue. At this point, it is fair to question whether Kris is engaging in strategic dishonesty, which isn’t like Santa at all.
Mara tries to explain his lawyerly duty to his wife in a scene that is the closest thing to an accurate representation of what lawyers do in the whole film. For his part, Fred is being reprimand by Doris for risking his career trying to prove the impossible: that an old man wandering around New York when Santa should be preparing for the big night is really Santa Clause. Fred doesn’t defend his strategy by explaining that its the best and maybe the only way to keep Kris out of Bellevue. Instead, be blathers on about faith, as if a lawyer believing his or her client on faith is a virtue. It’s not; it’s dangerous and incompetent. The ethics rules require lawyers to be partisan, which means to give their clients the benefit of the doubt. Faith, in contrast, precludes the possibility of doubt. If Fred’s passion is faith, he’s in the wrong profession.
Of course, Mara has already proved himself to be a rank incompetent. He began the hearing by having the opportunity to examine Kris on the stand, and let him get away unscathed. Kris agrees to take the stand, which IS insane, and it was malpractice for Fred to let him. Although Kris says he’ll I’ll be glad to answer “any questions,” Mara asks him only three: what’s his name, where does he live, and does he believe he’s Santa Claus. In response to the question about where he lives, Kris gives an evasive reply: “That’s what this hearing will decide!” Hahahaha! Very clever. Mara should have asked, “Do you live at the North Pole? Are you married? How old are you? Do you have a sleigh? Does it fly? Is it pulled by flying reindeer? Will you be coming down people’s chimneys on Christmas eve? Everywhere? How do you do that? Tell me about the elves…” and so on. This is the easiest case for the state to win ever devised. Kris’s claim makes no sense; a strong examination should have him questioning whether he’s Santa Clause. And Mara only asks three questions, one of which he allows Kris to dodge.
After being humiliated by his son, Mara shifts gears, telling the judge that the state will concede, arguendo, that Santa Claus exists, but that Kris must show that he is “the one and only Santa Claus.” Of course, Mara could have conclusively proven he wasn’t when he had Kris on the stand, but never mind, Fred is stumped, even though that was the issue to begin with. If someone claimed to be J. Edgar Hoover, it didn’t matter that there was a real J. Edgar Hoover; the question was whether the guy claiming that identity was Hoover.
Then we see workers at the Post Office complaining about all those letters to Santa at the North Pole they have in the dead letter room. Seeing the headlines about the sensational Santa Claus hearing,one of the postal workers (played by a young Jack Albertson, long before he played Shelley Winters’ husband in “The Poseidon Adventure”) has the brilliant idea of getting rid of the letters by sending it all to Kris. [Aside: this hearing is going on forever! This would normally be a one-day affair. The headlines remind me of the gag in “Airplane!,” where newspapers al over the world report the plane’s plight while the crisis is in progress.]
Fred, while this is going on, tells Kris that he’s at a dead end. He has no evidence or testimony that can show Kris is the one and only Santa Claus. That’s OK, says Kris in response. Practical Doris has come around, and now says (in a letter) she believes in him after all! So even though the judge deciding to commit him will make delivering toys and fulfilling the dreams of millions of little girls and boys impossible this Christmas and probably others, Kris is satisfied with the trade-off.
He is nuts.
But those letters are delivered, so Fred tricks Marrah into agreeing that the U.S. Post Office is a definitive authority for the purpose of deciding who Kris is. Marrah, apparently a moron, doesn’t figure out that if Fred is promoting the Post Office, then he has some kind of argument that the Post Office has endorsed Kris as Santa Clause up his sleeve. He should concede nothing until he sees what Fred is trying to pull.
“United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party,” Fred says, and when the judge and Marrah say, “yeah, yeah, whatever,” he produces the sacks of mail delivered to Kris because they were addressed to Santa Claus, burying the judge at his bench and ending the hearing with Kris averting the loony bin.
But the evidence isn’t what Fred said it was. The Post Office made no official ruling that Kris was Santa. In fact, the two postal workers who came up with the idea of delivering them to the courthouse did violate the law, or at least committed a firing offense. Fred hasn’t laid a foundation for admitting the letters as evidence. Who decided to send them to Kris? Did he have the authority? What was his thinking? How does the court know other letters to Santa weren’t delivered to someone else?
Free at last, Kris invites Doris, Fred and Susan to a Christmas party at the nursing home, where he will be Santa Claus, naturally. How and why he gets back to a small institution in New York City after his Christmas Eve ordeal is a mystery. At the party, Susan mopes because she didn’t get…a house. This means that Santa is a fraud, in her mind. I think Santa should have left coal in her stocking. She tells Kris that her mother was right all along: he was just a nice old man with whiskers.
As Fred Drives Doris and Susan home, taking a special short cut recommended by Kris, they pass exactly the house Susan wanted, and it’s for sale. Doris and Fred decide to buy it and make a family, and Susan finally believes, not only in Santa Claus, but in THIS Santa Claus. And when Fred finds what looks like Kris’s cane in the house, he starts to wonder himself.
Yes, Kris Kringle is one hell of a realtor.
It’s just moral luck that there happened to be a house nearby that met Susan’s expectations, and he got lucky. It doesn’t prove he’s Santa Claus any more than the letters did, but a lot of reputations are created by moral luck. I won’t begrudge Kris Kringle his.