Interview: Norm Pattis

New Haven Based Criminal Defense Lawyer

Defense Attorney Norman Pattis New Book Interview

New Haven Based Criminal Defense Lawyer
You are a trial lawyer. How do you find the time to compose the essays compiled in your most recent book, In the Trenches?

Finding time to write is never an issue. Writing is a form of therapy. The conflicts and controversies that drive people into a courtroom almost always represent a significant crisis, or turning point, in the lives of the litigants. A good lawyer is simply a storyteller. We tell other people’s stories. In the Trenches is simply an effort to step back and tell stories about what it is like to earn your keep fighting for others. I enjoy writing, and plan to try cases and to write essays until the final curtain falls.

One of the first essays in your new book recounts tears you shed after you won an acquittal in a murder trial. Shouldn’t you have been celebrating instead?

There are no winners in a murder trial. Never forget the dead. In the Larry Johnson case, I developed a bond with the victim’s mother in the course of trial. We’d often nod to one another, or say hello in a guarded, tortured, sort of way during breaks. After the verdict was returned, we ran into one another at a courthouse elevator and hugged. All I could tell her was how sorry I was for her loss. When I got home that night I wept thinking about how close my client had come to losing his liberty for a lifetime. I did my job; I attacked the state’s case, and I won. But nothing really changed for the victim or his family. Walking in the shadow of death is simply horrible.

Many of the essays are not really about cases. You have harsh words for the gun lobby, for example, and go so far as to call for repeal of the Second Amendment. Why?

I’ve stood next to far too many young men undone by gun violence. A nineteen-year-old killing another over a girl, a liquor bottle, a perceived slight – this is the front line on which I serve. I’ve come to detest guns. They are too easy to get and too easy to use; shoot to kill and you’ve not just taken one life, but ruined your own. Too many of the lives undone by gun violence are African-American; the white world seems not to care.

But why call for repeal of the Second Amendment?

The National Rifle Association justifies gun ownership as a means of preserving liberty. No one really takes that seriously; that’s mere rhetorical puffery. We’ve armed local police forces as though they are invading armies.  Guns are almost never fired at government in the name of liberty. No one is serious about that. Instead, corporations sell us guns and we shoot one another, thus creating a demand for more government, more guns, not less.

Having said all that, I am, of course, a hypocrite. I’m on the market for a good rifle just now. A bobcat’s been spotted on our neighbor’s roof, and we’ve coyotes everywhere. I mean to protect my livestock, but I don’t plan on shooting at any government officials – and neither does the NRA or its members.

You write about Edward Snowden as though he is a national hero. Don’t you agree that he undermined national security by publishing secrets?

Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are heroes of mine. Both deserve Nobel Peace Prizes. Never forget that government is merely a necessary evil. When it becomes too big, too powerful, too important to disclose the secrets it does in our name, we’re on the slippery slope to tyranny. Transparency is important. So is informed consent. When we the people know what government is doing, we can either approve or not. This nation was conceived in a spirit of rebellion; I’d hate to think we’ve become a nation of sheep.

Mass incarceration is an increasingly important issue. Why do we incarcerate so many people in the United States?

The sad fact is that the rhetoric we use to describe our lives does not match the reality of the lives we lead. We have five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of all prisoners. And we call ourselves the land of the free. Prisons are profitable and they are a means of controlling what used to be called the “surplus population.” We lock up those who have no real place in the economy and blame them for what is really a social failure. There’s a crisis of legitimacy in this country – look at partisan politics. Republicans and Democrats bitch endlessly at one another and accomplish next to nothing. We the people know the parties are merely whistling at the graveside. We need effective leadership, and we’re not getting it. Prisons are the new plantations, penal colonies where we hide our failure to redeem the promise of equal opportunity for all.

That’s a mighty grim assessment. Why practice law if you think the world is unraveling?

We are social animals, and nothing more. We live together in groups. Juries make collective decisions that define what is and is not permissible for the group. I believe that juries should play a more active role is setting the metes and bounds of our lives. I favor jury nullification, for example. Why not let juries reject the government’s claims at trial simply because the government’s priorities are misplaced? I call myself a methodological anarchist: I know that government is necessary, but I think we take it far too seriously. Juries, acts of popular resistance, and even revolt, can force change from below. I practice law because the rule of law is important; we just need not to lose sight of common sense.

Do you plan to write another book any time soon?

I have far more ideas than time. I still write two columns a week, one for the Connecticut Law Tribune, a publication read mainly by lawyers and judges, the other a syndicated column for the Journal Register newspapers in Southern New England. Perhaps I will do another collection of columns. I’m also playing at a piece of fiction involving the murder of a federal judge and researching a book on plea bargaining. So, yes, I plan to write another book. As I said at the onset of this interview, I love trying cases, and I like writing. I plan to do both for as long as I am able.