Yesterday, once again, we sat for over three hours in the Marion County room where land use appeals are heard. Then I went home, exercised and fed the dog, had some food myself, laid down on the couch, and opened up the Oregonian to a full-page story about the Department of Justice torture memo. By this time, my first thought was: “All lawyers should be ______” (you fill in the blank; just don’t make it anything pleasant)
Understand, we know some nice, ethical, good-hearted lawyers. So I really should have made some exceptions for the “All” above. But after listening at length to a land use attorney parse and pinch the language of county ordinances and state laws to fit her client’s narrow, selfish, lot partitioning goal, I couldn’t help but make a connection between how she and the Justice Department attorneys both look at the world in such a lawyerly, legalistic fashion.
Like…torture isn’t torture even when severe pain is inflicted, so long as the torturer has the idea in his or her mind, “I’m not torturing.” Okay, the actual Justice Department argument was a bit more sophisticated, but this is the gist of it.
Well, somehow I don’t think the innocent Iraqi being hung by the arms from a ceiling, whose shoulders are being torn apart, cares about the mental state of the CIA operative who is doing the torturing. This sort of disconnect between the reality of pain and the unreality of word parsing is what makes me want to hang the Justice Department attorneys from that ceiling. After a few hours maybe they’d want to change their definition of “torture.”
Similarly, though in a much milder and gentler context, Laurel and I were struck by how freely the land use attorney could twist the meaning of simple words to suit her purposes. We argued that since the lot in question is already below the minimum size (two acres) for a rural lot in Marion County, a county ordinance requires that any reduction in the size of this already “non-conforming” lot necessitates the applicant going through the partitioning process.
The attorney didn’t disagree, because the law is clear. But she tried to argue that while the lot line adjustment has to go through the partitioning process, it doesn’t have to meet the partitioning standards. Huh? This is like saying that while I’m required to run a 100 yard high hurdles race, I don’t have to clear the hurdles, but can run along beside them. Is it a high hurdle race if you don’t have to go over the hurdles?
We all laughed at Bill Clinton saying, “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That’s just lawyer talk. It’s not so funny, though, when the lawyer is trying to get two extra houses, and two extra wells, approved to be built a few hundred yards from your house in a rural area that already has severe groundwater problems. The land use attorney we spent three hours with yesterday said that she lives in the city. So what does she care if rural people run out of water?
Laurel came home wondering how attorneys live with themselves when they know that the cause they’re advocating for is destructive, or their client is guilty. I had some answers for her, but I don’t think I convinced even myself. Guess that shows I would have been a lousy lawyer—which is something I should be proud of, for sure.