Saturday, December 26, 2009

And on the topic of Sherlock Holmes

Was poking around my computer and found this piece -- I journalled it back in 2003 (although I'd written it a few years before).  I would just link to it, except I posted it when this blog was on AOL and had length-limitation which required me to break it up into four parts.  I just feel like taking it out for a stroll again (in full form).


I just finished watching "The Abbey Grange." "The Abbey Grange" is a Sherlock Holmes mystery--one in a series that was dramatized some years ago (1986) with Jeremy Brett as Holmes, which aired on PBS' "Mystery!" series. They were purchased by A&E, which explains why I just finished watching one.

I've seen them all before, multiple times. I am quite the fan of these adaptations, having gone so far as to cancel my subscription to Entertainment Weekly in protest of their review of the series. (It was, I should note, a positive review. Entertainment Weekly, however, had the audacity to imply that Sherlock Holmes stories appeal only to men, as if women would not possibly be impressed by a brilliant intellect or, at any rate, a brilliant intellect who does not sleep around.) So, yes, I've loved the adaptations, had seen them all before, and generally had little interest in watching them again (particularly with commercial interruptions).

But "Abbey Grange" is special.

"Abbey Grange" wasn't always special. It certainly wasn't my favorite Sherlock Holmes story when I first read them, nor even my favorite of the television adaptations. But it came to be an important part of my life in 1987.

At college, I took a course in the Legal Studies department which had the profound title of "Foundations of Justice." Now that all is said and done, I'll freely admit that I took the course for the sole purpose of obtaining a letter of recommendation for law school from the professor. The class was large, but I was motivated by the desire to get into a good law school, so I made certain I was known to the professor.

It turned out to be the only class I took, in college or law school, that was taught in the Socratic method. I became "the" student in the class--the one who is always called on when someone else does not have the response the professor is looking for. I knew I could get questioned in that class at any time. As a result (and, perhaps, a cause), I was more prepared for those class sessions than any other class, before or since. Although I did not quite realize it at the time, I learned a hell of a lot along the way. Really LEARNED it. In my desire to always be ready with the answer for the professor, I internalized the things he was teaching. I wasn't merely mastering the material so I could spout it back on an exam and forget it the next week; I was taking it in, engaging in dialogue with myself over the material, and coming to terms with the concepts at issue.

And what concepts they were. The "foundations of justice," I learned, are nothing less than the basic rules upon which societies are built: That before people can come together at all, they must agree to speak the truth; that doing good--justice-- is an end within itself. In my practice as an attorney, I've always respected the "due process" protections our constitution provides. But in "Foundations of Justice," I considered, perhaps for the only time, the necessity of respecting these protections, whatever the consequences, in order for the populace to continue to consent to be governed. The process must always be seen to be, and actually BE, just.

I remember arriving for the final exam in "Foundations of Justice." A three-hour written examination. The exams are set on the table, face down, in front of us. We are not to turn them over, but there is no rule against attempting to make out the type, backwards, from the back of the page. (You can tell I was already thinking like a lawyer.) There is a lengthy single-spaced fact scenario set forth, and the question beneath: a single line, set apart from the rest. I concentrate my efforts on making out the question.

"Did Holmes do right?"

For a moment, I think it is a Sherlock Holmes question. With regret, I chide myself that I am now entering the path to becoming an attorney, and future references to "Holmes" will mean Justice Oliver Wendell and not Sherlock.

But not this time. When we turn over our tests to begin, I am delighted to discover, not the fact pattern of some dry legal dispute, but the familiar story of "The Abbey Grange."

In "The Abbey Grange," a ship's captain was in love (from afar) with a married woman. When her abusive husband struck her, the captain flew to her defense. Attacked by the husband, the captain killed him. The captain then covered the crime to make it appear as if burglars had killed the husband. Holmes deduced the truth, but the authorities did not. When Holmes confronted the captain, he confessed the crime, but admitted no guilt--he believed he had done the right thing in saving the woman from her brutal husband.

Holmes then appointed himself judge, and Watson the British jury. Watson, on cue, acquitted the captain and Holmes, accordingly, set him free, promising to keep the truth a secret unless some other man be brought up on charges for the murder.

The question, "Did Holmes do right?" stared at me from the paper.

I had a sudden thought that, with this particular examination, the issue was not whether I was going to get an "A." The issue was HOW I was going to get it.

I began with the simplest question--was Watson's verdict factually "right?" Did the captain deserve an acquittal on the grounds of self-defense or defense of others? Undoubtedly yes, but this merely scratched the surface of the problem.

Was Holmes legally right in appointing himself judge and Watson the jury, thereby bypassing the legal system? Definitely not, I concluded.

But would the legal system have reached the correct result? And at what cost to the captain and the lady? Did Holmes do right by reaching the right result through the wrong practice?

The resolution to each question simply revealed the next. My determination of whether Holmes did "right" changed with each successive inquiry.

Can it ever be right to usurp the legal system? Is the cost to the fabric of society greater than whatever harm might be avoided by the subterfuge? Does it matter if no one else in the society is aware of the injustice worked to the system?

I honestly cannot recall what my ultimate conclusion was, although I suspect my own bias in favor of Holmes probably played a part. But I think, as with the subject matter of the class itself, it was the procedure of getting there that mattered. Discovering for myself that "right" can be determined factually, legally and morally, and that each standard may lead to a different result. Experimenting with the interplay between doing justice for individuals and doing justice for society. And perhaps most important, realizing that it does not require Oliver Wendell Holmes to raise an inquiry worthy of a Legal Studies final examination. Sherlock will do just fine.

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