Friday, December 12, 2014

The Mountain Comes To Mohammed

Monday, December 8, 2014
I didn’t have a job when I graduated law school in 2001.  However, I was fortunate to have an assignment, as it were, to do research with an informal group of lawyers bringing a class action suit against the SNCF, the French national railroad.  I got this role as an offshoot of a seminar on French and German law during the Holocaust in my third year of law school.  As any of you who have been a third-year law student, or in contact with one, knows, the third year is typically a costly nine-month period of sloth and indolence.  In so many ways, I differed from my classmates who were more than a generation behind me.  I enjoyed the third year, as much or more than the two prior, and applied myself diligently to the course work.  Unlike my “peers,” I wasn't eager to leave school and get into the “real world.”  After all, I had been there for over 30 years, with more than my share of ups and downs.  To be fair to the kids around me, I had some money in the bank (although I was blitzed by the stock market crunch at the turn of the century), and I was not burdened by debt.

The seminar was led by Professor Richard H. Weisberg, author of Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France, who connected me to this group suing the SNCF for its role in transporting Jews, captured Allied flight crews and others from France to Auschwitz and other fatal  destinations.  I was responsible for legal research on the US handling of tortious or criminal conduct by foreign governments (or their agencies) before, during and after World War II.  Until passage of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in 1976, there was no applicable statute on the subject.  Also, for more than its first 25 years, there was no authoritative ruling on FSIA’s retroactivity.  

The evidence was that the SNCF cooperated with the Nazis without hesitancy or objection.  I recall the shocking fact that the company billed the newly-installed DeGaulle regime in 1944 for rental of box cars used to carry people to their death prior to liberation.  In spite of the high competence of the lawyers that I worked with, the case was dismissed because of a US Supreme Court decision interpreting FSIA in another action.

Well, maybe patience is a virtue, because the Washington Post reported on Friday that “France has agreed to pay reparations to American survivors of the Holocaust [and certain other non-French nationals] who were deported to Nazi death camps in French trains, after a year of negotiations with the Obama administration.  The agreement, a bilateral accord with the U.S. government to be signed Monday, includes a $60 million lump-sum payment to be distributed among eligible survivors, their spouses and, if applicable, their heirs.” Ultimately, it was not the legal system that made the difference, but, according to the Post, the agreement “is intended to close the door on pending state and federal legislation that would ban France’s state-owned SNCF railway or its foreign subsidiaries from winning contracts in the United States.  A Maryland-based subsidiary of SNCF is part of a consortium of private companies bidding to build and operate the $2.45 billion light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.”  Cherchez la gelt.

Tom Adcock is still on jury duty and graced my presence at lunch again today.  We went to Shanghai Gourmet, 23 Pell Street, a consistent favorite.  We shared a scallion pancake ($2.25), no worse than second best in Chinatown, and divided two lunch specials, General Tso’s chicken and beef with scallions ($5.95 each), into equal parts.  Additionally, white rice and excellent hot and sour soup came with each order.  Time and not much money well spent.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Over 15 years ago, before I went to law school, I sat on a grand jury in Manhattan.  As I recall, we indicted 62 of the 63 accused persons presented to us.  In only one case, I voted on the losing side not to indict.  Therefore, I was surprised by the outcomes in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, where grand juries failed to indict police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed men.  I realize, of course, that those cases are much more complex than the muggings and drug buy-and-busts that we voted on.  Yet, the pattern of police shootings of black men is troubling, and frequently demonstrates at least inadequate training, if not outright racial bias.

In light of this, I still think that Columbia Law School made an unwise decision over the weekend in allowing students to postpone final examinations at the imminent end of the semester.  The dean wrote that “this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.”  He informed the law student body that policies for “trauma during exam period” provided for this postponement.  

Without questioning the agony felt by some (I hope many) students at these events, I don’t think that the law school can ultimately cope with student psychology.  First of all, students everyday may be genuinely upset by events of either universal or particular relevance to them.  If they choose to suspend their normal attention to their studies and ask the administration for an indulgence, okay.  But, I don’t want Columbia to be installed as the arbiter of empathy.

Second, I believe that the legal profession requires us to put aside personal concerns as much as possible in our practice.  That means representing people or positions that we might not like or share in private.  More basically, as in medicine, that means getting up in the morning, going to work and helping our clients (patients) regardless of the mood we are in.  It is the wrong message to tell law students that, because you feel bad, very bad, really bad about current events and/or the legal system that you are training for, you will be given a time out.  Life doesn’t usually offer us such consideration.  Hard things, bad things, challenging things may come at us from all directions at any time.  It ain’t always easy.   

Friday, December 12, 2014
The New York Post has started an advertising campaign in the subways.  This morning, I saw a placard that said, “The news doesn’t have to be boring to be news.”  Given that the Post is a Rupert Murdoch publication, a more appropriate phrase would be, “The news doesn’t have to be true to be news.”

Here’s another of those fascinating New York Times maps, census tract by census tract.  Instead of sports topics, this map illustrates unemployment in the US for men ages 25-54, presumably their prime years.  

Generally, it shows unemployment low in the states slightly west of center, such as, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota, where energy production is often a significant economic factor, although they mostly have low population density.  Ironically, wood and coal producing areas, representing older forms of energy, such as northern California, parts of Oregon and Idaho, northern Michigan, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky have high unemployment, as do areas where Native Americans are concentrated.  New England and the middle Atlantic states tend to look better than any other densely populated region.  The Times identifies “the affluent sections of Manhattan; . . . the highly educated suburbs of San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston and elsewhere” as areas of low unemployment for men in their prime years.  Bring on the women.

Admittedly ethnocentric, only Hanukkah interests me among year end celebrations.  However, today was the Winter Holiday Party of the Law Secretaries & Law Assistants Collegium, a supposedly social group for people working directly for judges or in the law department, my home.  As a dues paying member, I was entitled to attempt to be collegial with many people whose name I still don't know after five years.  Mirabile dictu, though, the delicatessen platters came from Ben's Best, 96-40 Queens Blvd, Rego Park, Queens, which I believe to be the best Kosher delicatessen in New York (not to be confused with Ben's Kosher Delicatessen, which has 7 locations in and around New York City, including West 38th Street).  When Mother Ruth Gotthelf was still alive, we would go to Ben's Best before or after visiting her nearby, before if she had put in an order for us to deliver a corned beef sandwich.  And I don't hold this opinion alone.  America's Favorite Epidemiologist, not one to throw out superlatives without extensive field testing agrees, as does Michael Ratner, who used to have a sandwich named after him, and who bears no hard feelings even after having been thrown off the menu.

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