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Opening Arguments

Simple justice

What I learned on Tuesday and Wednesday while collapsed on the couch with a summer cold:

This country is apparently full of befuddled and angry people who live sad, shabby lives on the margins of society, because they have only a tentative grasp of reality and can barely cope with the simplest challenge. I know this because I spent two days immersed in the phenomenon of television court or court TV or whatever it is called. I caught at least pieces of People's Court, Divorce Court, Judge Alex, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Family Court with Judge Penny, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, and I can't swear that list is exhaustive.

The cases are all the same. Plaintiff and defendant square off against each other for ridiculously small amounts of money. (Imagine Dr. Evil in "Austin Powers" chuckling diabolically over his plan to extort "$1 million!!" from the world and substitute former roommates Joe and Fred, who are willing to humiliate themselves in public over $319 in unpaid bills.) The people are usually related or at least have known each other for a long time. They lie all the time, but, since they never keep written records such as receipts or bills or signed letters, it's always hard to tell who is telling the biggest lie or who lied last. So wise but tough Judge Alex or Judy or Jeanine has to calm them down and sort it all out, usually with a stern lecture to the worst liar about how to get along in the world.

My favorite case involved two women I'll just call Befuddled Woman A and Befuddled Woman B. BWA had taken in BWB as a tenant because BWB had been living with BWA's sister and needed a place to stay when BWA's sister got hauled off to jail for something. Then BWA got busted for something, and while she was in jail, BWB took BWA's car out for a ride, even though she had no license, and wrecked it. BWA and BWB agreed that BWB should make monthly payments to BWA to help take care of the repair costs, but then BWB was jailed for something, so communications broke down, and BWA decided it was time to take BWB to court and teach her a lesson. And I think somewhere in there, there was something about BWA's son being in the car and getting a bump on his head and some ill-gotten embalming fluid that BWB thinks BWA should be grateful to BWB for getting rid of before the cops investigating the accident showed up, but I was sort of in an antihistamine fog by then and may have imagined that part.

You can't make this stuff up. Well, maybe you can, which is why back at the beginning I said the world is "apparently" full of people who end up on such ridiculous shows. Half the time while I watched this parade of morons, I was convinced it was all scripted and cast and carefully rehearsed and directed, just another way to keep the masses amused while the treasury is looted, like the Jerry Springer show and pro wrestling. But everybody who writes about them, whatever their opinion of the merits of court TV, seems to take the shows seriously, so I guess that's one more conspiracy theory out the window. This may be the ultimate in overthinking the concept, though:

TV "Judge" shows have become extremely popular in the last 3-5 years. A fascinating aspect of these shows from a rhetorical point of view is the number of arguments made by the litigants that are utterly illogical, or perversions of standard logic, and yet are used over and over again. For example, when asked "Did you hit the plaintiff?" respondents often say, "If I woulda hit him, he'd be dead!" This reply avoids answering "yes" or "no" by presenting a perverted form of the logical strategy called "a fortiori" argument ["from the stronger"] in Latin.

Yeah, that's the first thing I noticed, too, all those damned a fortiori logic faults, and the judges never even call them on it.

Life would be a lot simpler if we could just put all our challenges in front of such judges -- the disputed Iranian election, what to do about health care or "climate change," what kind of cars GM could make to satisfy the government and customers. Maybe they could do a trial run with something easy -- put Mitch Daniels and Pat Bauer up in front of Judge Alex to each explain why the other's proposed budget would lead to the state's utter ruin. "Now, Mitch," Alex might intone, "you say Pat's ideas would out the state millions and millions of dollars in the red because they're the same ideas that put the state millions and millions in the red before. You just blowing smoke, or have you got proof? Show me some receipts."


Thu, 06/18/2009 - 9:58am

I ultimately get paid for it, so I can't whine too much, but the mental fog you describe isn't limited to television shows. The extraneous information many folks apparently think is somehow relevant to their court case is baffling at times.

Bob G.
Thu, 06/18/2009 - 5:22pm

Glad you're feeling better.

As to the "judge" shows...I don't follow them ALL that much, and certainly NOT for the (purely) judicial aspect of it.

I like to watch them from time to time for much of the same reason YOU do...for the "comedic intrigue".

Besides, the laws they quote SHOULD be (for the most part) COMMON KNOWLEDGE to anyone with more than a handful of brain cells that are operational.