Ponder This Question

July 14, 2011

Please ponder this question seriously.

What do you think of the justice system of America?

I’d like for you to take the time to reflect and even respond at my website www.billcunninghamonline.com.  At the very least, I hope you take a moment and ponder the subject.  It is not only important that our system be just in this country.  It is also equally important that it appear just.

Your opinion of our justice system rests upon your own personal experience.  It depends in large part on whether you have been a party in a criminal or civil case; whether you have served as a juror or witness; and if you have not experienced any direct involvement in the justice system, whether you rely only on what you’ve read, seen, or heard through the media.

If you have been a person who has had a case in our Kentucky court system, the chances of you being satisfied with the system will depend in large part on the result.  But your impression of the process is also important to you.  When I visit the yard of a prison in our state and talk to inmates, I usually ask them point blank, “Did the judge treat you fairly?”  You might be surprised at how often prisoners who have been sentenced by a judge to incarceration will—in a manly way—profess that the judge was fair.  The jury may not have been fair.  The prosecutor may have been a rascal and his lawyer may have been deficient.  But almost always, they have no complaint with the judge.  Responses of inmates can be a little humorous and insightful.  One older convicted felon once told me: “Bill, I’m not guilty of what I’m serving time for.  But, I’ve done so much in my life and got away with it . . . who am I to complain?”

Do The Scales of Justice Always Prevail?

Unfortunately, the people who are the most dissatisfied with our justice system are the parties to civil lawsuits.  The case took too long.  The judge was prejudiced, or lazy, or curt and impolite, or did not give them enough time or listen to them.  Or all of the above.  Some complain of their lawyers.  Their attorneys almost bankrupt them with their fees, would not return phone calls, would not explain things, failed to talk to certain witnesses, or were incompetent.

Most of the lawsuits today involve divorce, property line disputes, contract enforcement, eviction, personal injury, litigation over an estate, personal injury, or any number of other possible private disagreements.  More and more of our cases are going to mediation.  People and lawyers are giving up on the court system.  It takes too long.  It’s too expensive.

Who’s to blame?  People like me.  Lawyers and judges.  We have our work cut out for us. We must strive to streamline our system and make it more affordable.  In short, it needs to be made more user friendly.

If you have served as a juror, your experience will most likely depend on where you served.  If you served in a heavily populated urban area, your time may have been unpleasant.  There, because of the size of the docket, there will be a large number of cases and numerous lawyers and judges involved in the process on a single day.  Jurors are likely to be given a cold and impersonal number and herded like cattle from one room to the next and spend much wasted time waiting in colorless rooms.

Almost all jurors I talk to in rural areas have had a good experience in serving on a jury. The judge and lawyers were courteous and considerate of their time.  The court started on time and the roles of the jurors were clearly explained.  Wasted motion and time were minimal. The cases were interesting and the experience positive.  Judges, lawyers, and clerks in Kentucky have made great efforts over the past 20 years to take better care of jurors.  In the final analysis, they are the most important people in the system.  With next to no pay, they are randomly summonsed from their busy lives to come and serve the thankless, but critical, job of passing judgment on their fellow human beings. I’ve often said that if you paid jurors what they are worth, it would bankrupt the state.

Judged By A Jury of Your Peers

Some of the most abused people in our justice system today are witnesses.  Sometimes they do not know why they are being summoned to court.  The lawyers have not talked to them.  They have to take off work and be at the courthouse at a precise time. They lose money by coming and, unlike jurors, do not even get a pittance for their time. Yet, they may sit there in a room with other witnesses for hours, even days on end, without being called.  Sometimes, when the trial is winding up on the third day, someone—a lawyer, bailiff, or clerk—will come and tell them they can leave. They will not be needed. This is shabby and inexcusable treatment.

Judges are responsible for running their courtrooms. But they have limited control over witnesses. The court, through the clerk’s office, is the authority which forces witnesses to appear through the summoning process.  But the responsibility of how witnesses are treated primarily belongs to the party who subpoenas them.  And that function is carried on by lawyers.  Good lawyers want happy witnesses testifying in behalf of their cases.  The summons must state a particular time. But when they will actually need to take the stand and testify varies greatly with how the trial progresses.  Considerate lawyers will   have their secretaries or investigators notify their witnesses of a more precise time closer to when they will actually be needed.  This will keep them from wasting a lot of time at the courthouse waiting to testify. The lawyers or their investigators will have always talked to their witnesses prior to trial and will have advised them as to what to expect.  In most instances, they will even discuss the questions expected on cross examination. They are sensitive to the witnesses’ job demands, their families, and their time.  Good lawyers will carefully nurture and take care of witnesses just as the judge does jurors.

At last, if your only impression of our justice system is what you’ve read in the paper, heard on the radio, or seen on television, I’ve got news for you.  You’ve got a lot to learn. The O.J. Simpson case and the most recent Casey Anthony trial kidnapped the country via television. The Simpson case went on for months and the Anthony trial for far too long.  In a Kentucky courtroom, these cases would have lasted for ten days at the most.  Good judges do not let one trial take over the docket, shouldering other important cases onto the back burner, simply because they may not be as sensational.  Neither the state nor criminal defendants with all their cherished rights have the right to commandeer a court system, calling an unlimited number of witnesses and asking an unlimited number of questions.  If Judge Ito had to be in the next county starting a case on Monday, the O.J. Simpson trial would not have turned into a circus.

Unfortunately, only the aberrations in our justice system—courtroom battles dealing with sex, violence or public figures with bizarre, maybe even ridiculous, results—get major network gavel to gavel television coverage.  For the most part, thousands of trials are conducted across this land without fanfare and, for the most part, with reasonable outcomes.

So, don’t trust your opinion of America’s justice system by what you see on television.  When trials have commercials, greed has stuck its uncaring hands into the justice jar.

So, I’m back to where I started.  What do you think about the American justice system?

The Buzzard Roost

July 1, 2011

Drive west on I-24 from Nashville, Tennessee toward Paducah, Kentucky. Pass Clarksville, Hopkinsville, and Cadiz. Some twenty-five miles out of Paducah, after crossing the Cumberland River, you can exit right onto Highway 453. Follow it for about six miles to a stop sign, where it joins Highway 93. Turn left and in about ten minutes you will arrive in Smithland. It’s one of the oldest towns in Kentucky. This ancient village, so much off the beaten track today, sits overlooking the Cumberland River where it joins the historic Ohio River.To get to the confluence, go straight through the caution light to the end of Court Street, which drops off into the river. In the summer, as you sit high on the bank, you can see a definite color line where the less muddy Cumberland joins hands with the more brownish Ohio.

The river brought life, commerce and sometimes even conflict to the people of Smithland.

On this precipice, overlooking the far reaching river valley and the Smithland Dam to the north is a wooden gazebo. It is named by a sign, “The Buzzard Roost.” It’s where old men—and not so old men—while away the hours. They are no longer on the benches at the courthouse. They are here all year long in all but the coldest days of winter—or when the rising waters of the Cumberland and Ohio are lapping at their feet. There they visit, whittle, and watch the waters of history literally flowing by just below their gazes.

If you are looking for company, you can almost always find it there. The best time is on languid, hot summer afternoons when they sit in the shade of a giant cottonwood towering over the gazebo. No one alive can remember when that stately old cottonwood did not stand tall and majestic on this river bank.

This is a special place. It is special for many reasons. I’m very fond of the old men who sit there. They are good people. Sit and visit with them on a slow afternoon in mid-summer. Bring a sack lunch. Engage them in conversation. Against a backdrop of mighty streams passing, you reconnect with a smoothing reality of life. Like these timeless rivers, nature moves us all at its own pace toward our ultimate end upon the ”shoal and bank of time.”

It is a special place which has seen an abundance of history. On a gray November morning of 1803, the flotilla of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition, known as the “Corps of Discovery,” silently slid by on their epic journey to the northwest.

In just a few years, this location of the Buzzard Roost would see a strange sight. There, coming down the Ohio River, was a vessel belching white smoke and pounding water from a rear paddle wheel. It was the New Orleans, the first steamboat ever to ply the rivers of America. It would make its maiden voyage down the long road of rivers from Pittsburg to New Orleans. Its group of passengers would not only make this historic voyage, but would see strange sites along the bank. It was December of 1811 and the momentous earthquake, with its epicenter at New Madrid, Missouri, would shake all of the mid-south. Passengers on the New Orleans at mid-stream were mostly free of the earth shaking ashore. But they could see swaying trees on the river bank even though there was no wind. They also watched in amazement as enormous chunks of the riverbank caved into the stream. It was such a violent upheaval that the Mississippi would actually run backwards for a time, creating what we now know as Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner of Tennessee.

Sam Houston is one of the greatest Americans of all time. He is the only American to serve as Governor of two separate states—Tennessee and Texas. In the spring of 1829, Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee over a mysterious and heart breaking separation from his wife, Eliza Allen. Broken and demoralized, he passed this very spot at Smithland on his escape to the Arkansas territory to join a life with the Cherokee Indians. He would be back and forth to Tennessee and Washington D.C., however, over the next few years. Then once again, in 1832, he would pass the future home of the Buzzard Roost on his way to Texas. There he would win fame, fortune, and a lasting place as one of our greatest Americans.

The Frenchman Who Became An Honorary American

Although his name is fading now on the yellow pages of American history, no foreign personality has ever been so appreciated, so revered, and so loved by Americans as the French General Marquis de Lafayette. No, not even the hugely popular Winston Churchill. Churchill’s eloquence and courage inspired us in our war to save England and Europe from the Nazi menace. Lafayette helped us save America for ourselves. It was his daring leadership and French soldiers who came to our aid during the Revolutionary War. This young general possessed the endearing personality of a matinee idol. He became like a son to George Washington. (Lafayette named his own son George Washington Lafayette.) After he and his troops pulled our chestnuts out of the fire at Yorktown, he returned to France. He arrived there in the throes of the bloody French Revolution. Incredibly, because of his aristocratic background, this gallant soldier of democracy barely escaped the guillotine and was imprisoned for a long time. Finally, in 1824-1825, long after George Washington and most of the other founding fathers had died, he made a triumphant return to America. He was feted and wildly acclaimed by huge crowds and sumptuous banquets all over the eastern United States. There is hardly a town of any size that does not have a street named after him. There are even cities named in his honor. At precisely 8 p.m. on the night of May 2, 1825, General Lafayette and his entourage arrived at Smithland on the steamboat The Mechanic. The vessel turned its nose up the Cumberland and continued to churn its way to The Hermitage in Nashville to spend a couple of days with Andrew Jackson. On May 7, General Lafayette returned to Smithland, turned right onto the Ohio, and headed towards Louisville and Frankfort. Had the old men of the Buzzard Roost been sitting in their positions on that day, they could have exchanged waves with the legendary General as he slid past them into history.

The people of west Kentucky loved Andrew Jackson. We voted for him for President over Kentucky’s own Henry Clay. His plantation, The Hermitage, is a little over 100 miles up the Cumberland River from Smithland. He and his hearty group of Kentucky and Tennessee boys most likely traveled by this very site of the Buzzard Roost on his way to the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. We know for sure that as a bereaved husband saddened by the recent death of his beloved Rachel, he passed this spot in January of 1829 on his way to Washington, D.C. to take office as our seventh President of the United States.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the little village of Smithland was pivotal. Union forces, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, came ashore to capture the critical river town. It was about the same time the Union forces had captured Paducah. From these points, the Union forces would control the movement of their gunboats and troops into the heart of Dixie. Past this location of the Buzzard Roost went a flotilla of gunboats heading to Fort Donelson. Back past this point, on the way downriver to the hospitals in Paducah and Cairo, would pass the pitiful site of steamboats laded with the Union dead and wounded.

I’m out of space. And I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, Clara Barton, Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay, James Polk, Florence Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and many others who not only turned the corner here at the historic confluence, but actually spent the night just down the street from the Buzzard Roost.

In 1962, some way or another, Hollywood learned of this little scenic village of Smithland. Such silver screen legends as Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, and Walter Brennan made their way here that summer to film the beginning scenes of “How the West Was Won.” The little village and all of west Kentucky was abuzz with the attention of such stars. The scene on Court Street, as well as where the large Cottonwood still stands, were so authentic and picturesque that they had to be altered very little for the movie. Since then, most of the historic buildings of Smithland have been torn down. Sadly, they are still being torn down.

Hollywood Comes To West Kentucky

But even with most of the historic buildings now gone from Smithland, I make this boast with pride. Outside of our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., there is no real estate in the United States that has seen as much history as the site of the Buzzard Roost in Smithland, Kentucky. And unlike Washington, D.C., the nice old men at the Buzzard Roost won’t charge you a dime