Wednesday, December 16, 2009



I like fairness. I always have. Even when I was a kid, I couldn't stand it when people got preferential treatment when it appeared to me they didn't deserve it. I didn't like it when other kids cheated at games, or when I saw that some kids' parents had more money than mine. "That's not fair," I complained. When I was young, I earnestly believed that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed at things. And I believed that success had something to do with merit. For me, fairness expressed whether a situation was fundamentally right or wrong. It was intuitive. I even thought that our government cared about fairness.

My understanding about fairness changed over time. I learned that fairness had two dimensions, one substantive, the other procedural. "Substantive" fairness referred to the intuitive judgment whether a situation was right or wrong. "Procedural" fairness referred to the technical circumstances that either gave or withheld an equal chance to achieve a particular result. For example, racial realities in America reflect "substantive unfairness" for black people because their economic social situation is largely worse than that for comparable white Americans. On the other hand, court rules and contract terms might reflect "procedural unfairness" because they tilt technical rules to favor one party over another in a dispute. Substantive fairness is basically a "justice" inquiry. Procedural fairness is more technical. But both imply a confrontation between opposing forces with "something at stake."

In law school, I cared about both substantive and procedural fairness. I used to complain about results in particular cases because they were "unfair" to one side or the other. This amused my professors. Slowly, I learned that while the law professes to supply "procedural fairness" to both sides in a legal dispute in an effort to assure "substantive fairness" (AKA "justice"), the reality is that fairness does not really matter. Procedure and form are more important than substance in the law. The side with greater resources and greater procedural tact will win. One motion beats another motion. A dismissal beats a complaint. A judgment beats a plea. Papers must be filed properly or they will be rejected, no matter how cogent their arguments. Sometimes these procedural results lead to "substantive fairness." But it is really irrelevant. Judges simply look to see whether the lawyers' behavior matches the rulebook. Legal officiating, then, is really just a technical exercise; it is not necessary that both sides have equal procedural opportunities. And it certainly is not necessary that the ultimate result be "substantively fair."

And how could it be? After all, fairness only enters the analysis when two sides confront one another. Fairness comes into play not just in the law, but also in fistfights, football games and poker tournaments. When two sides compete for a result under common rules, fairness rears its head. When something is at stake, fairness matters. Children scream "No fair" only after investing themselves in a game that offers some reward; without confrontation, fairness does not really matter. People want fairness when they strive to obtain a result that will favor them and disfavor someone else. They want to know that they had every opportunity to vindicate their desire to win. In legal terms, litigants want to know that they had every chance to advance their interests, or to protect them if they are threatened.

This creates a dilemma. After all, lawyers in our legal system--like rabid children vying for victory in a game--badly want particular results. They are not neutral guardians committed to abstract principles like "procedural fairness." Rather, they are biased advocates determined to win. In fact, they take an oath to "zealously" represent their clients' legal interests, and that means pulling out all the stops to prevail. This is problematic because fairness and bias do not go hand in hand. If fairness means giving the other side exactly the same opportunity to win as you, then fairness reduces your chances to win. As a biased advocate, you must increase your chances to win, not reduce them. In that sense, lawyering and fairness appear antithetical to one another.

Still, lawyers inevitably say that they just want "fairness" for their clients. But here they confuse their terms. Yes, they certainly want "substantive fairness," namely, a biased result that intuitively pleases the client. But they do not want "procedural fairness," namely, giving the other guy an equal chance to win. Additionally, lawyers misuse the word "fairness" all the time. They say they care about fairness, but they really mean "favorable results for me." If they win, they say the process has been "fair." If they lose, though, they say they were treated "unfairly." This has nothing to do with abstract fairness. This is mere bias and disappointment.

We should not be surprised that lawsuits are brutally acrimonious affairs because we follow the adversarial system in the United States. That means we basically allow two diametrically opposed, biased parties to battle it out to determine various property and liberty rights. One side gains; the other loses. It is always a zero-sum game. As such, advocacy is essential. The lawyers must go for the throat or their clients lose everything. Courts praise the adversarial system because they say it leads to greater "truth." After all, according to the apologists, the "truth" will inevitably come out as two sworn enemies struggle to gain an advantage over each other. And when money is at stake, they will stop at nothing to win. Truth, then, is the "collateral fallout" from biased adversary confrontations.

And here again arises the dilemma. How can fairness matter in bitter confrontations like this? Will either side in a lawsuit value fairness to the other when they are sworn to ruin each other? That is like asking NFL teams to ensure that their opponents get all the favorable flag calls they deserve. In other words, it is sheer fantasy. When two sides confront each other and stand to lose all if they do not win, fairness to the other guy is the last thing on their minds.

I mention all this because our legal system professes respect for fairness. Everyone in court says they are either "aggrieved" or "wrongly accused." They say they just want an opportunity to be heard in a fair forum. Yet during that opportunity to be heard, they want to treat the other side as unfairly as possible in order to win the fight. No one really cares about securing "ultimate fairness." Individual litigants--and their lawyers--just want biased results.

Judges should care about fairness. But as merely technical stewards committed to determining whether lawyers meet the standards set out in motion rulebooks, they have little power to reflect on power disparities between the parties--or unfairness in the rules themselves. Court rules and civil procedure protocols present fairness problems in their own right. Judges do not have the authority or discretion to deeply think about larger fairness issues. Their job is technical, not philosophical or ethical. Behavior either falls within the rule or without. Sometimes the result is fair, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's "fair" to bar an injured person from filing a lawsuit because he missed the date by one day. Sometimes it isn't. But from the judge's perspective, rules are rules. And that ends the judge's role.

This is why so many legal cases arouse disgust in neutral onlookers. From a detached perspective, it appears that fairness means nothing in the average lawsuit. Rather, it appears that mere compliance with rules and deadlines takes precedence over the question whether each side has a fair shot at a particular result. And lawyers do their best to belittle, degrade and discount everything their opponents say in court. This gives the impression that they would be just as satisfied if they won unfairly as if they won fairly--just so long as they win. Fairness seems the last thing on their minds. Indeed, they only mention "fairness" if they lose a point, in which case they say the result is "unfair."

In truth, we cannot blame lawyers for acting this way: They are biased advocates in an adversary system. They are trained to exploit rules in order to obtain private results, not to ensure that abstract fairness flows from every confrontation under the law. Lawyers are not philosophers or ethicists; they are employees hired to do a job. And employees are biased toward their employers because they receive pay to act only in their interest.

Bias and fairness are mutually exclusive. That is why I think it is extremely difficult--if not impossible--for our legal system to consistently deliver fair results. That is not to say that biased advocacy does not sometimes lead to abstract fairness. But that is a side effect at best, not an intentional result.

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