Try to talk to someone about how a court of law has engineered your financial ruin and, in so doing, has utterly ignored statutory and constitutional imperatives, and it is likely that you will be met with a blank, glazed stare. After all, America has a good legal system, right? Say what you will about America’s behavior in the Middle East and that nasty little torture racket at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and goodness knows where else—America’s legal system is…well….it is the best system there is.
A book by Robert Grundstein, entitled Bad Minds, High Places, may dispossess you of any Disneyland notions concerning the cold reality of America’s legal system. Laced with humor and dazzlingly easy to digest explanations of convoluted legalisms, Grundstein’s book lays out a true story—his story—of how the legal system first in Ohio and then in the state of Washington retaliated against him in a nearly seamless effort to deprive him of his livelihood—the practice of law—and potentially his very freedom.
Grundstein’s story starts in 2007, with what appears to be blowback in Ohio from some moderate activism, involving his writing an editorial about one Judge Peter Junkin. Grundstein apparently committed the unthinkable when he criticized a judge and passed out the editorial in front of an Ohio courthouse.
We follow Grundstein’s story as he is subsequently criminally charged for committing an act which he easily could have proven he was unable to commit. Robert Grundstein was not even in Ohio when the act was alleged to have occurred and had ATM receipts and more to prove his whereabouts.
As it turns out, no one cared about the evidence.
From this jumping off point, Robert Grundstein enters a landscape best detailed by Franz Kafka, or possibly depicted in the British television cult series, The Prisoner. We see judges ignoring evidence—in fact, critical evidence proving Grundstein’s innocence disappears from the record—further charges are piled on, like wobbling matchsticks on an already void foundation, as prosecutors, judges, and indolent defense attorneys collude to destroy an apparently innocent man.
The fact that many of the individuals named in the book were subsequently investigated and criminally charged and imprisoned following the FBI raids in Cleveland in 2008 buttresses Grundstein’s story. Through his narrative, we meet a panoply of players, including prosecutor Joe O’Malley, imprisoned on federal criminal charges, Chief Clerk of Courts Mark Lime, subsequently indicted on seventy-six counts of docket falsification, Judge Lance Mason, sentenced to twenty-four months for wife beating, and a slew of public officials who were forced to resign, including former prosecutor Bill Mason, former judge Lillian Greene and, yep, you got it—the judge who may have started the entire ball plummeting down the hill towards Robert Grundstein—Peter Junkin, who was removed following the FBI raids.
All told, over sixty people, including Cuyahoga county judges, prosecutors, county executives, administrators, employees, and others who contracted with the county went to jail.
We also meet an array of potentially law-abiding judges and private attorneys who palpably blanch at the prospect of attending to or defending Grundstein’s rights. His narrative illuminates the unfortunate reality that all these individuals are connected through a mutual need to keep working with each other, and therefore will not cross over the invisible red line to restore a semblance of fairness to an individual with a bullseye on his back.
This is the stuff of paranoid fantasies, no? Unfortunately, the fantastic is now the real. Writes Grundstein in the epilogue to his book:
Government and organized crime are not all that different. The idea is to get something for your group at the expense of people who aren’t in it. The Jewish Holocaust can be cast as not only racism, but a planned transfer of wealth. You kill the person you’ve cheated in order to remove his voice. Andrew Jackson did it with the Cherokee Indians after gold was found in Georgia. No one is innocent.
At a time when lawyers who attempt to uphold the rule of law are disciplined, jailed, sanctioned, or disbarred—Richard Fine, Don Bailey, Ken Ditkowsky, Lanre Amu, Andy Ostrowski, Grant Goodman, among others—it is heartening to see the bravery that some of these individuals are exhibiting. Ken Ditkowsky’s writings are being blogged by another attorney-under-fire, JoAnne Denison, and appear regularly at http://marygsykes.com/. After a harrowing year and a half in LA County jail, attorney Richard Fine has launched the Campaign for Judicial Integrity.
Andy Ostrowski recently made a run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and now hosts a radio show concerning justice issues.
By writing such an engaging and—frankly—disturbing account of powerful people misusing their power in shameful ways, Robert Grundstein joins a growing choir of knowledgeable voices who are declaring, in essence, the utter failure of the U.S. legal system. Writes Grundstein,
Politics is defined as competition for resources under conditions of scarcity. It’s common for judiciaries to be politicized, especially in states where judges are elected. However, when the legal system charged with keeping your group together is politicized, it will discriminate in favor of itself at the expense of the people it’s designed to protect…. There will be higher priority people in the interest group and those outside. No one will trust government or the law….
America is, in fact, simply a chunk of territory and rules governing behavior on that territory. With personal property being misappropriated through the sorts of mechanisms that Grundstein refers to in his book, and with the rules—that would be the legal system—basically a “mock-up” to serve special and powerful interests, one might well conclude that America is no longer America.
Unlike the doomsdayers, Grundstein offers suggestions to fix this broken system. In his epilogue, entitled “Solutions for a Politicized Judiciary,” he makes a number of recommendations as to how to begin to address the problem of influence peddling in state courts. His recommendations include public and comprehensive hearings for judges prior to elections, rotating judges into other jurisdictions, and also thorough judicial performance reviews, based on evaluations by those appearing before the judges.
While Grundstein’s recommendations may incur a heated debate among those who see a politicized judiciary as a symptom rather than a discrete problem, I think we can all agree that this debate is long overdue.
Bad Minds, High Places demonstrates that the problem of “collusion to ruin” exceeds the general perception of how bad our legal system has actually become. This book, along with the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers and Franz Kafka’s The Trial, should be mandated reading in civics curriculums. It is only through such fearless reporting as evidenced in Bad Minds, High Places that our legal system will ever evolve into a system of liberty and justice for all.