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November 14, 2009: Monsters in the Water

Seth Victor '09

November 14, 2009

Monsters in the water

There is always a dark side. The hidden reality that lurks just beneath the surface, the watcher in the water, an inferi, is always there. Nearly three months into my clerkship, I have seen through its surface, and the sight makes me recoil. Perhaps I am being overly dramatic, and if so, I apologize. I do not often have the opportunity these days to write with any flare beyond the bare facts and the applied legal principles. I do believe, however, that the idea of a hidden and reprehensible creature scheming underneath a boat afloat on hope is somewhat appropriate. Like with any job, if you do not find the silver lining in what you do, you are liable to succumb to the daily trivialities that can bog you down; you need to keep moving, remembering why you do what you do. For the most part, I have been successful, and I still love my job. Unfortunately, I have discovered a part of the process that pains my patience. Sadly, it is the people who pull me under.
 
Lest I appear a misanthrope, allow me to clarify. Generally I bear a great deal of sympathy and pity for the people who come to the courthouse. Certainly no criminals want to be there. Likewise those that come to civil are only there because it is a final option when negotiations have broken down, and family cases need someone to fix a very bad situation. I would not trade places with any of them, and I am often sorry that we as a court cannot remedy all of their various problems. That said, the people in front of the judges put my limited faith in humanity at serious risk.
 
There is a saying around the courthouse: “Criminal division is bad people on their best behavior, while family and civil are good people on their worst behavior.” Tragically, that situation makes it quite difficult to deal with either type. Popular culture readily enjoys lampooning lawyers as greedy fiends ready to fleece their friends at a moment’s notice, but really, they are just reflections of their clients, if that. Often I find it is the attorneys who act as the voice of reason to their clients’ ridiculous demands. That is not to say that there are not annoying attorneys. It is just that at this point I think lawyers are just like everyone else, only they know the laws and stand out more.
 
There are no clear cases of sympathy. A girl breaks down at the jury’s pronouncement of her guilt, sentenced to three years in state prison. She is 27 and has two children, and no previous criminal record. Her crime? She drove home drunk from the bar, with her equally drunk boyfriend in the passenger seat, lost control of the car, and the boyfriend, who was not wearing his seatbelt, flew through the window, and died. Justice served, but I didn’t feel that great about it. Then I see the guy who shot an 8-ball of drugs into his ex-girlfriend’s face after he kidnapped her get only two years, because of mitigating factors. He claims he’s clean now. I go back to my desk to get some briefs done. I have to review DYFS records to determine what information the defendant can have for discovery in an indictment for raping his daughter. Seeking some relief in family, I read briefs from two people who once loved each other enough to get married, and who now treat their kids as weapons in a knock-down, dragged-out war of attrition of assets and attention.
 
The problem, you see, is that the law actually gets applied to real people with real issues. It is all good and well to apply what we learn to hypothetical scenarios. Real life people are so much more complicated, and so much more tragic. If lawyers do sell their souls, it’s so they do not have to feel the daily weight of the human condition; even the vicarious pressure is terrible.

I feel the need to save this rather morose entry with an uplifting thought. I’ll leave you with two things. First, all of the above said, this is still the best job I’ve ever had, and my faith is not entirely lost. Part of that is because of my second thought. For all of the, in a word, crap that we see, there is nothing better than watching a smiling family’s adoption be approved by a judge, seeing that the court can also bring people together, rather than split them apart. All too often we are a bandage, with the watcher still beneath, but every once and a while, we can actually heal.

 

Seth Victor

Year:
Class of 2009, JD cum laude, Certificate in Environmental Law, Certificate in International Law

Hometown:
Lopatcong, New Jersey, USA

Undergraduate degree:
BA cum laude in History, and English Language and Literature from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada