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Wake-up call

The long arm of the law or its stump?


What is the fair market value of the Constitution?

Nothing, if it can be bent, folded, stretched or otherwise re-invented to accommodate the designs of powerful people and institutions. 

Unless its stated principles of equality under the law are immune to being usurped or superseded by so-called leaders or other authorities, the Constitution is rendered a plaything and fossil that belongs in a museum drawer, like a woolly mammoth's tusk.

If it is a sacred document, then its spirit must reject relativism. If unalienable rights can be mitigated, then they are not absolute and the Constitution is a failure. When the Constitution can be appropriated in service to partisanship and pawn of ideology, then it is more amenable to enslaving than to ennobling.

When the Constitution does its job, it is a sower and instigator of irreconcilable differences, because it is not inelastic and cannot yield  or be breached by being stretched by courts, politicians or anyone else. It must be  a shield for even the weakest and poorest among us, or else it is nothing but a beautifully written charade.

A constitutionally based judicial system must provide ammunition for alleged lawbreakers to defend themselves on a level-playing field in a courtroom. That ammunition is in the form of legal representation that has full access to evidence and discovery at trial.

The most malignant threat to the sanctity and relevance of the Constitution is its being updated and made flexible to accommodate modern vogues, forms and ambitions that fit self-serving interpretations. The raw Constitution needs to be a bulwark against the free rein of vanity, whether it be of government officials, courts or others.

And that's why New York's Legal Aid Society is such a precious asset to us all, even those among us whom it infuriates by its activism and positions. We are  sometimes blessed by being made indignant by them. 

They have many hundreds of attorneys who have been working under an expired contract since July. They've been offered a 2-percent raise.  With understated civility last week, they drew public attention to this outrage.

But they got right back to work for their clients, because that is what they do and why they're here. These approximately 1,000 attorneys, members of the UAW-affiliated Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, do the divinely inspired dirty work of de-polluting the judicial system of inequities, as much as they can.

Many people resent the Legal Aid attorneys and accuse them of being pro-criminal apostles of anarchy who have little empathy for victims. These critics don't want to realize that it's not a matter of giving menaces to society a break; it's a matter of affording them their constitutional rights.

When they went on strike in 1994, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani gave them ultimatums to return to work and threatened them with ineligibility to reclaim their positions if they didn't submit. He slit and mangled their budget and shortly before he left office in 2001, terminated their renewable contract with the city and harassed them with competitive bidding entanglements.

I've always wondered why, in a metropolis with thousands of multi-millionaires and billionaires, at least a few of whom love classical music, the only radio station devoted full-time to it must on each of several seasons, have a week-long fundraiser, beseeching members to  donate less than a dollar a day in exchange for a babka, to keep the station from extinction.

In that vein, why must the Legal Aid Society plead for private donations and public grants, when there are thousands of sumptuously opulent New Yorkers  who profess a deep belief in social justice and civil and human rights? Some of them call themselves activists.

Sol Stern, a superior intellect and author of a 1995 commentary in City Journal titled "The Legal Aid Follies,” sounds miffed that "New York's Legal Aid Society keeps championing the disorderly poor.” He blames it for bringing New York to a "fiscal and social dead end,” adding "the damage wrought to the social fabric by (its) legal victories is starkly clear.”

Exalting Legal Aid by virtue of his antagonism to it, Stern says "Legal Aid has been the driving force behind … endless court mandates that have multiplied the city's social pathology,” which he censures for "maintaining a permanent victim class.”

Stern's ideological posterity are still possessed by a loathing of the poor and still share his delusion that "the legal profession has … tended to romanticize legal services" in our "counter cultural ethos." They still subscribe to his chalking it up to radical leftist  "poverty law doctrine" and the roots and appeal of Marxism.

Legal Aid, as a rule, is to them a Svengali that persuaded "the Legislature to keep the juvenile justice system toothless.” What is really needed are some wisdom teeth!

The LAS attorneys have renounced personal prosperity in order to demonstrate by action, not merely profess, their core value mission of fighting for equal justice for everybody. They're not hypocrites like the gentrification gluttons who drive out the poor folks from their newly unaffordable communities, and then sit in bistros with their laptops blogging about social justice, feeling superior and good about themselves.

The LAS staff are the unfeigned progressives; not like the Davos frauds who pontificate about the carbon footprints of wage-slaves while fueling their private jets to take them to an old candy store that still sells the egg creams they're nostalgic for.

You can' have it all: the high road and the fruits of greed. So the LAS attorneys are content to toil indefatigably for a fraction of what they could get doing mergers and acquisitions.

The Legal Aid Society infuriates me. I have cursed them out for some of their positions, such as excesses of bail reform and elimination of judicial discretion. But because they are a cornerstone of genuine egalitarianism and though I would cross swords with them, I'd also go to battle for them.

They keep in check the baser instincts of the too comfortable and privileged.

They've shielded families from catastrophic loss of SNAP, dislocation from haphazard eviction, abuses of homelessness, housing apartheid, dehumanization of pre-trial imprisonment, police misconduct, sexual chauvinism, exploitation of the disabled, unalienable rights of immigrants, survivors of domestic violence, workplace entitlements, the elderly at wits' end  trying to combat confiscation of their treasure and security, debt collection and on any given day a laundry list too long for the dockets of our judicial laundromats.

The Legal Aid Society's public defenders are paid far less than the city's Corporation Counsel attorneys, and only around 50 percent remain for over a decade. The city seems to regard them as monks who take an oath of poverty to prove their sincerity. The city dangled a puny contract offer as a litmus test to test how resilient these righteous advocates are to being demeaned.

The Legal Aid Society is essential. Citing state data, the World Socialist Website notes that “while 98 percent of landlords have legal counsel in eviction cases, only 36 percent of tenants have representation.” According to the  nonprofit news organization The City, "less than 10% of tenants facing eviction last month actually got a lawyer.”

In the theoretical quest for justice under the law in criminal matters, Governor Kathy Hochul’s executive budget showers district attorneys with funding for "discovery,” but withholds it for public defenders. According to sources quoted in The Chief, both Governor Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams need to "provide a better funding model.” Funds needed for "discovery" have reportedly been made available to district attorneys but not to public defenders.

The Legal Aid Society 's attorneys are overdue a contract that at least remotely resembles what they are worth in their profession, though it would bust the budget to pay them what they are worth to society.

We hear of the "long arm of the law" with regard to far-reaching persistence to apprehend suspects. There should also be a "long reach of the law" to enable justice to those of us whose access to justice is severed by poverty and other causes.

If not, the "long arm" is a stump.”


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