One-Minute Book Reviews

January 1, 2013

‘Gideon’s Trumpet’ – A Nonfiction Classic About a Landmark Legal Case

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:32 pm
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How a destitute prisoner’s handwritten letter to the Supreme Court made history

Gideon’s Trumpet. By Anthony Lewis. Vintage, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

None of the rights of a defendant is more pervasive than the right to have a lawyer, a judge once said, “for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.” The accused won this vital safeguard in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case that had one of the unlikeliest beginnings in American legal history.

Fifty years ago a poor, indignant prisoner in Florida wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court – in pencil, on lined prison paper – saying that he had been denied the right to a lawyer when convicted. The court agreed to hear his case and held that the Constitution required the government to provide counsel in all serious criminal cases for defendants too poor to afford one. Clarence Earl Gideon won the right to a new trial, this time with a lawyer, and a jury acquitted him in just over an hour.

Anthony Lewis’ story of Gideon v. Wainwright glows with humanity, intelligence and the elegance of the judicial system at its best. Clarence Gideon, “tossed aside by life,” burned with a sense of injustice. Abe Fortas brought to his court-appointed role as the prisoner’s champion a heady mix of intellectual sophistication, a passion for his cause and the resources of a top-tier Washington law firm. Assistant Attorney General Bruce Jacob of Florida was so overmatched with Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, that in Lewis’ hands he earns sympathy even as he argues that giving the accused the right to counsel would cost too much and “be requiring the states to adopt socialism.” The Supreme Court acquires a personality of its own – dignified yet less stuffy than is often imagined — as Lewis explains the factors that affected the outcome of Gideon, including legal precedent, oral argument and friend-of-the-court briefs.

The Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Gideon’s favor on March 18, 1963, and in 2003 Lewis rightly noted in an essay marking its 40th anniversary that, in important ways, the U.S. has failed to honor the justices’ intent. “Many states and localities offer not even the minimal level of support needed for an adequate defense,” he said. “And far too often the lawyers provided for indigent defendants have not met the barest standards of competence.” Those failures do not diminish the achievement of this great book, a beautifully written portrait of a moment when the U.S. government honored one of the noblest of American ideals: that all people deserve equal protection under the law. It is a heartening reminder that, sometimes, the system works.

Best line: “Justice [Robert H. Jackson], who was one of the great oral advocates of his day before he went on the bench, said in his wonderfully astringent style that he felt ‘there should be some comfort derived in any question from the bench. It is clear proof that any inquiring justice is not asleep.’”

Worst line: It seems churlish to pick one in such a fine book, but Lewis writes that a case in Washington State “broke important new ground in federal-state relations” when the “new” isn’t necessary.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to all. An outstanding choice for history book clubs and other reading groups that like high-quality nonfiction with a strong narrative drive.

Published: 1964 (Random House), 1989 (Vintage paperback). Much of the book first appeared first appeared in somewhat different form in The New Yorker.

Furthermore: Gideon’s Trumpet won the 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best fact crime book. Anthony Lewis laments the government’s failure to fulfill the promise of Gideon V. Wainwright in a New York Times essay, “The Silencing of Gideon’s Trumpet.” (Adam Liptak gives more recent examples of that failure in “Lawyers Stumble, and Clients Take Fall,” a New York Times article that deals in part with a death-row inmate whose lawyer “was on probation for public intoxication” and “battling a crippling drug addiction” to crystal methamphetamine while representing his client.) Henry Fonda played Clarence Earl Gideon in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie of the novel. You can read more about Gideon v. Wainwright at Oyez.org.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 30, 2012

‘One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900’ — Why Are So Many Americans Smashed on the Highways?

Filed under: Current Events,History — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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Margaret Mitchell’s killer and the wide receiver Donté Stallworth are among the people who spent little time in jail for taking a life 

One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. By Barron H. Lerner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 218 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A paradox of modern life is that Americans stigmatize smokers but have a history of leniency toward drunk drivers who often do more harm. In 1949 Margaret Mitchell died after being hit by the car of an off-duty taxi driver who had alcohol on his breath and 22 previous traffic violations. Hugh Gravitt spent just 10 months and 20 days in jail for killing the author of Gone With the Wind. He also won remarkable sympathy from journalists and others, including the Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who believed that Mitchell had inadvertently dashed into the path of his car. As late as 1989, Sibley wrote that she hoped to see “a book that exonerates the taxi driver.”

Barron Lerner shows in One for the Road that such forbearance remains so common, it may be the rule rather than the exception. In 2009 the Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth killed a jaywalking pedestrian with his car after a night of drinking in Miami Beach. He pled guilty to driving under the influence (DUI) manslaughter and received a 30-day jail sentence (of which he eventually served 24 days). At about the same time, the New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a hidden gun that he had carried into a nightclub. His sentence: two years for a crime that harmed no one but himself.

The different fates of the wide receivers suggest the contradictions in American views of drunk driving. For decades respected studies have shown that drivers generally begin to become impaired when they have blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. But all 50 states set their legal limit at 0.08%, higher than the level at which the risk of a crash increases. Stricter tests of drunk driving – and penalties for violating them – apply in Australia and much of Asia and Europe. It’s illegal to drive with a BAC above 0.05% in France and Italy and above 0.02% in Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Lerner believes America’s complacency results in part from a clash between basic values: the desire to promote public safety and to protect to individual rights. It also reflects the national love of cars, the popular view of alcoholism as a disease that needs treatment rather than incarceration, and a new focus on the dangers of texting, talking on cell phones, and other forms of “distracted driving.” A few months ago, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline read “Distracted is the new drunk,” as though one danger had replaced another.

One for the Road leaves no doubt that the U.S. could reduce the number of drunk-driving casualties — 13,000–17,000 deaths and countless injuries a year. Higher “sin taxes” on cigarettes have helped to deter smoking and would be likely to have a similar effect on drunk driving. And new forms of technology such as ignition interlock devices could help if more states required them.

But whether the U.S. can muster the political will needed to reduce the casualties is uncertain. Some of the tougher laws on drunk driving that exist today resulted from campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s by the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop or by groups such as RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and Mothers Against Driving (MADD), which have lost much of their clout. That movement appears to have stalled. And a powerful alcohol lobby stands ready to push back if it regained momentum.

Lerner is a doctor who specializes in public health and describes all of this with almost clinical detachment, although he appears to favor changes such as lowering the legal blood alcohol content. And his book is less a history of drunk driving than of the up-and-down national effort to control it. That focus can make for dry reading but provides a welcome counterpoint to the emotionalism that often taints media reports on related personal tragedies. One for the Road reminds us that other public health campaigns, worthy as they are, shouldn’t drive out efforts to reduce alcohol-fueled casualties on the road. As Lerner writes, “Surely it is hard to argue that someone who smokes, especially away from other people, deserves more scorn than someone who drives drunk.”

Best line: In the movie Animal House, four fraternity members wreck a car after a night of drinking. “Although the dean admonishes one of them, warning that ‘Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,’ the film’s irreverent message was, of course, exactly the opposite.”

Worst line: “Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the ambiguities and contradictions of drunk driving than the stories of two women involved in the founding of MADD: Candy Lightner and Cindi Lamb. Both women lost daughters to drunk drivers, although Lamb’s daughter, Laura, was paralyzed for six years before dying. In the early 1990s, both women went to work for the alcohol industry, the very people who manufactured and vigorously advertised the product that had, indirectly, led to their children’s deaths. As we will see, Lightner and Lamb were not naïve at all and had good reasons for doing what they did.’ That’s a memorable passage, but Lerner doesn’t convince you that their reasons were “good.”

Published: September 2011

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2009

Where to Find Answers to Legal Questions About Blogging – ‘The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law’

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:42 pm
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How much of a poem or song can you quote on your blog? Is it okay to use your Facebook page to describe all the annoying things your co-worker does, in enough detail that people will recognize her, if you don’t use her name? If another Web site libels someone and you repeat the offending material on yours, could you get sued?

A good place to look for answers is The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law ($18.95, Basic Books, 432 pp., paperback), edited by Norm Goldstein — specifically, its media-law section with chapters on many topics that apply to bloggers, including copyright, privacy, and defamation (which generally includes both libel and slander).

The legal portions of The AP Stylebook have two advantages over much of the similar material you can find on the Web. First, they have a reader-friendly – that is, nonlawyerly – tone. Second, they cover the major areas that apply to Web content producers and give clear examples of things that can get you into trouble.

The copyright-law section of my 2000 edition notes, for example, that “no mathematical formula” can tell you whether the text you want to use from a poem or song amounts to “fair use.” The stylebook instead offers four general guidelines that apply to quotation. One says that any use that decreases the potential market value of the copyrighted work tends not to be fair: “For instance, if a literary critic reproduces all five lines of a five-line poem, the potential market value of the poem will be diminished because any reader of the critic’s piece can obtain a copy of the poem for free.”

The book also notes that crediting a source doesn’t turn an infringement into fair use. If you have questions, all of the contents are available by subscription to a searchable online database.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

April 16, 2008

J. K. Rowling Will Lose, and Here’s Why

Filed under: Children's Books,News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 pm
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First, these words are being written by someone who thought Hillary Clinton couldn’t win New Hampshire after she got emotional a few days before the primary.

Second, I have no right to be writing about J. K. Rowling’s legal affairs, given that a) I have never finished a Harry Potter novel; b) I don’t usually cover publishing news; and c) my first-hand knowledge of Rowling consists almost entirely of having twice seen her on the street in front of a Tesco supermarket when I was living near her neighborhood in Edinburgh.

Even so, I must say it: Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment will lose their lawsuit against RDR Books, the would-be publisher of a book based on the Harry Potter Lexicon Web site www.hp-lexicon.org, which went to trial this week in a federal court in Manhattan. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and copyright expert, made the best case I’ve read against her claims in an article in Slate in January
www.slate.com/id/2181776/pagenum/all/#page_start. The gist of it is that while Rowling has many rights as an author:

“ … Rowling is overstepping her bounds. She has confused the adaptations of a work, which she does own, with discussion of her work, which she doesn’t. Rowling owns both the original works themselves and any effort to adapt her book or characters to other media—films, computer games, and so on. Textually, the law gives her sway over any form in which her work may be ‘recast, transformed, or adapted.’ But she does not own discussion of her work—book reviews, literary criticism, or the fan guides that she’s suing. The law has never allowed authors to exercise that much control over public discussion of their creations.”

Wu didn’t predict that Rowling would lose, only expressed the view that she should, but that doesn’t need to stop the rest of us, does it?

That’s all I have to say, except that a) the Tesco in EH 8 has excellent white Stilton with apricots and b) I did predict the winner of this year’s Pulitzer for fiction.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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