Our minds seem to like symbols a lot. Religious, social, and governmental groups all have important symbols and credos. We recite oaths, salute flags and talk solemnly about honor and duty and pride.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it the earth will still have a huge dent in it where the tree fell. But if the human race disappears tomorrow then what will happen if a flag catches fire? Will that diminish the universe in some way? I guess what I’m asking is: aren’t symbols only helpful if they elevate our thinking in some way? Is it possible that symbols actually diminish our thinking at times? Is it possible that they diminish our thinking more than we realize?
We like rules too. Rules are like symbols in that we rarely question their purpose. Rules were created to guide behavior, but often they wind up becoming barriers to action. People who have to apply rules like them because they eliminate the need to exercise judgment. If one has to make a judgment then they also have to be prepared to defend that judgment. And, often people who are adversely affected by the judgment will be upset. As with symbols, I have to wonder if rules don’t often diminish our ability to think critically.
A client of mine hired a contractor to do work on his home and gave him a $20,000 deposit. The contractor did no work and kept the deposit. The contractor was a scoundrel and had done the same thing to many other people. I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t challenge the lawsuit I filed against him. Since he didn’t file a formal response to the lawsuit I asked for a "default judgment." Actually, I sought the default judgment against his company since that is who my client signed the contract with.
I went to court with my client to present the necessary testimony so that I could get the default judgment. Before I presented my case I checked in with the docket clerk. He looked at my paperwork and suggested that I needed an "Affidavit of Non-Military Service." The reason for this piece of paper is that if you plan to default a person the court needs to know if that person is a member of the military. If so, then the court would need to determine if they were called away to serve their country. We don’t want people to be defaulted because they weren’t able to answer a lawsuit because they were serving their country.
However, I was not defaulting a "person." I was defaulting a corporation. Corporations don’t serve in the military. Corporations have perpetual existence. And corporations have agents for service of process. This corporation had an attorney as its agent for service and he had received the complaint and done nothing about it. So, that’s why I didn’t think an Affidavit of Non-Military service was necessary. The clerk, however, believed that the affidavit was a sacrosanct requirement. To avoid a disagreement I went back to the form desk, grabbed an Affidavit and had my client fill it out. Then I notarized it.
When the judge called our case my client explained what happened. He had hired the contractor after Katrina to do work on his home and his business. The judge asked him questions that insinuated that he had been foolish to hire such a contractor. Why was that relevant? It wasn’t. But it made the judge feel like he wasn’t simply rubber-stamping the default judgment request. He didn’t want to seem like someone who simply did things in an unquestioning manner. So the judge asked tough questions, even though the questions were irrelevant and belittled my client. The judge seemed to be suggesting that my client didn’t deserve a judgment against a company that had essentially stolen his money.
After the testimony, I offered the contract and the cancelled check as exhibits and moved for a default. The judge asked if I had prepared an Affidavit of Non-Military status. I said that the default was against a corporation, which I believed didn’t require such an affidavit. The judge then grew visibly impatient, and asked again if I had prepared the affidavit or not. I said that I had, and offered it up.
He snatched the affidavit and examined it, and then nodded approvingly. With a hint of reluctance, he granted my request for a default judgment. Behind him was a large crest with the symbol for the State of Louisiana and a United States flag. On the bench next to him were the scales of justice.
Ah, symbols. What would we do without our rules and our symbols?
Still, it’s nice to know that if you’re fighting in a foreign land, defending your country’s symbols and its system of justice, you have at least one thing going for you: you will not be defaulted if someone brings a lawsuit against you. Unless, of course, that person is willing to fill out a form affidavit claiming that you are actually not a member of the military.
But, realistically, what are the odds of that happening?