Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Time for Justice: A Book Review

Hello there my longtime readers and my (as of this writing) 52 followers! Today I am inaugurating a new feature for this blog, book reviews. It seems my name and website have gotten into the hands of numerous esteemed publicists and they are clamoring for me to say a few things about the books by the authors they represent. Since I have nothing much else to do these days except wait for literary stardom and attendant publicists of my own, I have decided to give this new project a go.

The Time forJustice: How the excesses of time have broken our civil justice system, (Onward Publishing, 185 pages) is a new non-fiction book by acclaimed lawyer Anthony V. Curto, written with the assistance of Ronald E. Roel. Mr. Curto has worked for several decades representing clients as diverse as Ted Turner, Linda Lovelace, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and has an insider’s view of the problems that have plagued our civil justice system for several decades.  Curto reduces these issues to one chief obstacle: time. Specifically, the way time is used to prevent settlements from being reached and enforced in a manner that helps those who need them.

While the shortcomings of our criminal system often receive more attention in the press, Curto reveals how the bureaucratic and administrative burdens placed on the civil courts have led to justice being denied to those who turn to the courts for help. These encumbrances allow numerous delaying tactics to bankrupt plaintiffs with attorneys’ fees or prevent judgments from being collected. Through the examples of numerous court cases, Curto shows how these methods work in practice. They include creating jurisdictional disputes, arguing over how to fill out paperwork, failing to show up in court, filing appeal after appeal, and pushing back trial dates as far as possible.

Curto spends most of the book focused on one particular example which did not involve him personally, but fascinated him nonetheless as it unfolded: the case between Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and his constituent Esther James. Their dispute began in 1960, during a television interview when Powell named James as a “bag woman” working for Harlem gangsters. James sued the Congressman to receive compensation for defamation of character and an apology. Through skillful manipulation of the judicial system, which included making use of his privileges as a Congressman, his residency in Puerto Rico, and the complicated ownership of his property, Powell managed to prevent the bulk of the settlement against him from being paid out. He also ended up avoiding punishment for contempt of court.

While Curto acknowledges that the Powell case had many extenuating circumstances involved (namely the benefits of his elected office) he nonetheless feels it showcases how the legal system can become tied up by a single case. At the end of the book, he notes that by 1969 more than 80 judges across 10 different courts had been involved in the proceedings, along with 59 jurors. The official paperwork for the case ended up forming a stack nearly 20 feet high.

In between his coverage of Esther James’ quest for justice, Curto also briefly focuses on several other cases that involve similarly lengthy periods of litigation. This helps to reinforce his arguments about specific ways the system needs to be changed and the consequences from justice delayed.  In one instance, Curto talks about a client frustrated with the stalling tactics of a deadbeat distributor. He hired goons to collect the money he was owed without telling his attorney. In another case, he shows how a man gets away without paying a jeweler for an expensive wristwatch because he manages to avoid court summons until the lawyers’ fees for the case outweigh the value of said watch.   

Curto’s The Time for Jusice is engaging and raises good points without being overwhelming to the reader or becoming mired in legalese. It is easy for anyone without a legal background to follow both the cases he discusses and the improvements he recommends. He helpfully structures the book to review his points and conveniently sets apart his suggestions from the rest of the text so that he can go into detail about them. Curto further helps the reader by reviewing these ideas at the end. His list for improvements to the civil justice system include the following:

  • Set trial dates as soon as summons are answered
  • Broaden the authority of judges
  • Eliminate pretrial paperwork
  • Require plaintiffs to pay expenses if appeal is lost
  • Enforce court decisions
  • Settle jurisdictional disputes upfront
  • Require litigants to attend their trials
  • Keep the same judge on a case
  • Expand small claims court

The only major problem with the book is how Curto assigns blame for the current state of the civil judicial system. Understandably, he wants to focus on exposing the problems that the courts face without getting bogged down in partisan politics or demonizing the legal profession. However, claiming that time is the chief enemy focuses the blame in the wrong direction. After all, time is a mere abstraction. Curto confuses a chief weapon of those who deny justice with those who allow them to get away with it. Instead we should be learning who is actually responsible for our state of affairs and who is in the way of effective reform.

By telling the reader that only time is the villain, our system appears to be tragically broken. Lawyers, judges, law enforcement, plaintiffs, and defendants are depicted as merely acting out a choreography of delay.  The story behind who or what created the rules that guide them is hardly discussed. Curto’s list of specific reforms is a good start of what should be done, but without being told what individuals or organizations are working to advance them, the average citizen is given no blueprint for actually making them a reality. All that can be done, it seems, is to try and appease Chronos for the return of a judicial golden age of quick and speedy trials.

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