David Plotz at Slate begins by explaining how and why he doesn’t like or trust Stephen Glass. He then comes out and says so:
So, needless to say, I don’t like Steve. And I don’t trust Steve.
It appears there is only one thing he dislikes and distrusts more than Stephen Glass. Lawyers.
Glass was caught in a scandal in the late 90’s, fabricating stories at The New Republic, then lying about them to cover up his lies. Plotz’s wife, Hannah Rosin, was Glass’ editor, and closest confidante. Not only did she get burnt, but hung out like a fool for not being a very good judge of character. Glass then compounded the damage in his post hoc rationalization novel, The Fabulist, where he “depicted the Hanna-like character as conniving, sleazy, and disloyal, and the Hanna-like character’s husband as even worse.”
But none of this was offered to show that Glass was undeserving of admission to the bar. To the contrary, Plotz was laying the foundation, proving not merely his lack of pro-Glass bias, but his overt anti-Glass hatred, to demonstrate that his thrust was unchallengeable: The Supreme Court of the State of California was horribly wrong to deny Glass admission upon his moral turpitude.
Even so, today’s California Supreme Court decision denying him admission to the California bar is misguided and cruel, a verdict that embodies what is wrong with American law. The Supreme Court spends 35 smug, self-righteous pages finding him morally unfit to be a lawyer in California. His “turpitude” required him to show overwhelming evidence of rehabilitation, but the court found his apologies self-interested, his confessions incomplete, and his pro bono work insufficient. Lawyers must be utterly devoted to “honesty,” the justices assert—a claim that only lawyers could make about law with a straight face—and Glass isn’t.
This isn’t an argument in favor of Stephen Glass’ worthiness to practice law, but rather the legal profession’s unworthiness to question a man that Plotz calls untrustworthy still. For a guy who writes for a living, it seems that Plotz ought to have a better grasp of rhetoric.
For many outside the profession, lawyers look pretty damned sleazy. For many inside too. Some grumble about it privately, while others do so openly and for the discrete purpose of letting the slimebags know that someone is watching. The fact that they are admitted to practice law, however, is invariably disturbing, but there was nothing in their background or history to suggest they lacked the character to be entrusted with other people’s lives.
That’s a problem with young applicants to the bar; they haven’t had enough of a chance to create a track record before they appear before the Character and Fitness committee, so they can sneak through, only to seize the opportunity later to behave badly.
But Glass wasn’t a kid applicant, but someone who got his chance to blow it, and did so in spectacular form. Unlike young people who were once addicted to drugs or alcohol, whose bad conduct related to their sickness and, once the addiction was overcome, were good if flawed people underneath, Glass’ conduct went to the deepest heart of who and what we aspire to be as lawyer. It went to his integrity. This is the core of character, and soul of being a lawyer.
No doubt Plotz would laugh at such a sentence. Lawyer? Integrity? Character? Who the hell do you think you’re kidding? Watch daytime TV, and see lawyer integrity on display. Check out lawyer websites or videos and you will see characters rather than character. True.
But these aren’t what lawyers aspire to be. These are the errors that slipped through. These are the mistakes that weren’t caught in time. These were once good, well-intended people who, through circumstance or accident, have gone wrong. And if they go wrong enough, we excise them. Or at least we should, though we don’t do it well or frequently enough.
Glass, on the other hand, came before the Committee with lights blazing and sirens wailing. It’s not that he was categorically excluded, but he stood at the bottom of a huge mountain of his own making. Is this wrong? Hardly. It is a privilege to be a lawyer, to be deemed worthy of the trust of others. You don’t get to be a lawyer because you paid law school tuition, or because you really, really want to. You have to earn it.
And when you stand before a huge mountain of your moral turpitude, you have to scale it. Not because all lawyers are so wonderful, trustworthy and perfect, but because we don’t need more lawyers who aren’t, and we don’t need to let them enter when we know of the problems up front. Every person who applies to be a lawyer is not entitled to get in.
Whether Glass is sufficiently rehabilitated so that his utter lack of integrity has rematerialized, like a penis Bobbitized and grown back, is more art than science. I neither have an answer nor particularly care. He’s not my enemy, and I know nothing more about the guy than anyone else who knows nothing more about the guy. The Cali Supremes say he’s not good enough, and in the absence of any proof to the contrary, I demur.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the Plotz argument that because lawyers are scum to begin with, what’s one more piece of scum in the profession. Not only does he have his logic backward, but his cynicism knows no bounds. Some might suggest this is a reflection on his own occupation, journalist, where he doesn’t see a lack of integrity as a stumbling block. Maybe it’s just a manifestation of misery loving company, given how poorly Plotz and his wife fared in the Glass fiasco.
Either way, this isn’t his profession and he neither gets a vote nor has the grasp to criticize the court’s unanimous decision. To the extent that the legal profession has more than its share of practitioners whose integrity is challenged, the reaction is to do better, improve upon past failings, not give up and let anybody in.
Admitting Stephen Glass to the bar would help the people of California who need lawyers. He has proved that for 10 years. But the Supreme Court and the California Committee of Bar Examiners don’t care about that. They care about telling themselves that their profession is saintlier than it is, and they’re superior to the reformed liar who wants to work with them. But law isn’t holy orders. It’s a job.
We are not journalists, and this is not just a job. We may not be “saintlier,” but we can damn well try. Plotz might want to consider trying as well, and maybe then he and his wife wouldn’t have been hung out to dry by Glass in the first place and left to play the fools.