In Law and Popular Culture

Admittedly, I am a Mark Twain novice, and I stumbled on this quote accidentally. As I said in my very first post on this blog, I intend to read some Twain. But I haven’t gotten to it yet. In any case, Mark Twain had a lot to say, and especially about lawyers it seems. There is so much to learn for me about Mark Twain, but let me start with this line that is now an all time favorite.

Copyright laws

From my very brief look into Mark Twain, or rather Samuel Clemens, it seems that he was obsessed with copyright law. Clemens was adamant about protecting his work as Mark Twain from being pirated, at home and abroad. He argued in a famous speech before US Congress for the perpetual right to the profits of one’s labor and property. In this case, the profit one’s ideas and writings in books and such. In an unsent letter from 1887, Clemens railed against the current application of US copyright law. He particularly scolded the government for profiting from the copyright laws through import duties and fines, but failing to protect the works that are copyrighted. So in that light, Clemens  continued:

”[T]he departmental interpreters of the laws, in Washington (…) can always be depended upon to take a reasonably good law and interpret the common sense all out of it.”

and he continues:

“They can be depended on, every time, to defeat a good law, and make it inoperative–yes, and utterly grotesque, too, mere matter for laughter and derision.”

The context of Yoo

I unfortunately forgot how I exactly found this quote, but I do remember the context: doing research into John Yoo to satisfy my curiosity. Remember, Yoo creatively interpreted several US statutes, the torture convention, and the Geneva Conventions during the Bush Administration. Sure, in hindsight this quote may accurately describe what Yoo did. But interpretation is what lawyers do. And besides Yoo, this quote reminds of my own little time at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and research into government lawyers in general. Interpretations are made on the fly. But common sense is not always purposefully interpreted out of the law. The exact opposite is actually closer too the truth.

Government lawyers

Samuel Clemens, in the name of Mark Twain, ridiculed government lawyers, and I see his point. But government lawyers are in a difficult position. Within the executive branch, the government lawyer must advice on the law, apply the law and defend a legal position that he may not agree with. A lawyer, including a government lawyer, is also subjected to pressures arising out of loyalties other than to the government. Somehow, a lawyer feels a loyalty to the law itself. He or she becomes – to some degree – a defender of the law. And then there are personal morals to contend with. So three kinds of pressures tear at a government lawyer, not seldom in different directions. Ease up on the government lawyer.

How far off is Mark Twain do you think? Or is he? Let me know in the comments below, or through Facebook or Twitter.

Showing 3 comments
  • William T McDaniel

    “Somehow a lawyer feels a loyalty to the law itself”. In my opinion most lawyers get past this conditioon soon after graduation.

  • Mark

    “The exact opposite is actually closer too the truth”
    So you’re smarter than Sam Clemens? Or closer to the truth?
    I think I can channel what he would have said about a lawyer being an apologist for other lawyers – or for the legal system.
    Clemens’ literary heir, Robert Heinlein, was fond of picturing fictons where one tenet was always “the day they killed the lawyers”.
    I cherish this idea.
    No intelligent person could look at the practice of law in this country (and the harm done by lawyers and judges to our freedoms) and have the gall to say there is any common sense left in that arena at all.
    And I’m amazed (and disgusted) that you can say it with a straight face.

  • Kenneth Manusama

    Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your gracious comment. I think you need to distinguish between lawyers. A lawyer in private practice v. a government lawyer, and between different fields of law. Yes, I will grant you that, for instance, ambulance-chasers and mob-lawyers, may not feel as much fidelity to the law as I have experienced a government lawyer to have. And whatever lawyers do with the law is also dictated by the law itself, so there is enough blame for legislators to go around as well.

    I am assuming that you have had a bad experience with a lawyer, and if so, I am curious to hear what it is. In any case, please fill me in as to how lawyers and judges have done harm to your freedoms. And with respect to the killing of lawyers, which I do not recommend, what happens if all the lawyers are dead and one zealous (federal) government official decides to trample all over your rights and freedoms? Who is going to defend you? Who is going to hold the government official accountable? Vigilante and/or mob justice?

    I am amazed that you would be disgusted when reading something about a Mark Twain quote and lawyers. What has you riled up like this?

    Kind regards,

    Kenneth Manusama

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