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Making Waves and Riding the CurrentsActivism and the Practice of Wisdom
By Charles Halpern
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Charles Halpern
All right reserved.
I stepped into the main entrance of the federal district courthouse, a sterile modern building facing the manicured lawn of the Mall, between the Capitol and the White House in the heart of official Washington. I greeted the guard by name as I walked through the green marble lobby. "How ya doin' Mr. Hapner? Nice to see you back," he said.
"I've got a big case in district court this morning," I said, as breezily as I could manage, as if I had trials and arguments in the courthouse every day. Just two years earlier, in 1965, I had been a law clerk in this same building, my first job out of law school, doing research and drafting opinions and memoranda for an appellate judge. Today I was returning, dressed in my gray pin-striped suit, carrying my new monogrammed calf-skin briefcase. I was lead counsel in a case I cared about deeply, asking the court to take unprecedented steps to protect the rights of mental patients confined in public mental hospitals against their will. I was no longer carrying the bags for a senior partner in a case for a bank or drug company. This was my first big step into professional autonomy.
I had spent months preparing, learning about mental hospitals and the diagnosis and treatment of mentally ill people, interviewing experts, and lining up witnesses. If we could establish that my client was receiving inadequate treatment, the decision would have major implications for the hundreds of thousands of patients confined in mental hospitals throughout the country. Success would mean that courts would, for the first time, look behind the sealed doors of the hospital and evaluate the activities, the tedium and neglect that characterized the patients' lives—their long days watching soap operas, their sunlight filtered through thick windows and mesh security screens, surrounded by patients on thorazine rocking back and forth and chewing their tongues. Courts would have to determine whether the hospital was providing adequate treatment for the inmates' mental condition to justify their incarceration for an indefinite term.
As I entered the courtroom I felt a mix of excitement, anticipation, and terror. This was a highly visible case and Jim Ridgeway was covering it for The New Republic. He greeted me at the courtroom door with a big, gap-toothed smile. "Is your client like McMurphy? Is Nurse Ratched beating him down? Does this case involve an effort to hit back at the whole repressive system that is clamping down in this country?"
"I am just focusing on this hearing, this morning," I answered. "It is about one guy who has been held without treatment for over four years. The Constitution doesn't permit that."
Of course, I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Ken Kesey novel that had been published just a few years earlier, along with R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, and I knew the sociological and cultural implications of this challenge to psychiatric authority. But this was a law case in a courtroom, and I had never conducted a hearing before. I was too tense for a casual conversation about sociology or literature.
By the time I arranged my papers at the counsel table and sat down, my client was brought into the courtroom by two marshals. Charles Rouse looked confident and hopeful despite his ride from St. Elizabeths Hospital in handcuffs, alone in a bus with security screens on the windows. He was a man in his mid-twenties, dressed in an ill-fitting gray suit and a narrow black tie, his skin pallid from his years locked away from the sunshine, with the demeanor of an ambitious used car salesman. His black hair was slicked back, and he wore dark-rimmed glasses that enlarged and framed his darting eyes. There was a little swagger in his walk, as if he were pleased to be the focus of attention. We shook hands.
"How are you feeling?" I asked him.
"Nervous," he said.
"Me too," I said.
* * *
I found myself representing Charles Rouse in court that day because of an unusual telephone call I had received six months earlier. I was sitting in my office under the eaves of a brick mansion near Dupont Circle, a charming, oddly shaped little room, which I liked very much, even the annual spring ritual when the serviceman came through my office and climbed out my window on his way to tune up the air conditioner on the roof. The mansion housed the law firm of Arnold & Porter.
The firm had been founded in the fifties by three veterans of the New Deal. It was known for its smart, innovative lawyers—effective advocates for major corporations, as well as, paradoxically, flinty independents willing to take on unpopular clients, like accused subversives in the McCarthy years. It was a pleasingly eccentric place to begin my career, but the initial blush of novelty had faded. I was becoming impatient with work on issues that I didn't care about—license agreements for marketing laundry soap and joint ventures for shopping malls—drafting legal memoranda in long days in the library, and client conferences where my job as a junior associate was to take notes and try to look interested.
On that afternoon I was drafting testimony for a trade association executive for a congressional hearing on bank interest rates when I received a call from David Bazelon, the chief judge of the Federal Court of Appeals, where I had served as a law clerk. I was familiar with Judge Bazelon's reputation at Law School, a restless and creative judge who used his judicial authority to work for social change. To do this, he was willing to reach out to promote novel legal theories. He was particularly identified with probing exploration of the insanity defense. Because I hadn't worked directly under him, I had been spared the often tense exchanges he had with his own clerks, with whom he could be demanding and ill-tempered.
"Can you come down to see me at the courthouse?" he asked, with no preliminary small talk.
I looked over the testimony that I had been drafting. "Sure," I said. When the chief judge asks, I thought, it was a good idea to say yes. I knew that he often reached out to his former clerks to assist him in drafting speeches and developing new legal theories. But since I had not been one of his clerks, I was flattered that he was calling on me. And there was a good chance that he wanted to talk about something more interesting than the maximum interest rates that can be charged on an unsecured loan.
The chief judge's suite of offices looked over the Mall, at the west façade of the Capitol, which was glowing pink in the setting sun. It looked to me like the kind of picture postcard view that tourists send home. To my left the dome of the Capitol hovered. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue stood the White House. The Mall was surrounded by sprawling government buildings housing cabinet departments, each with endless corridors leading to beige cubicles, spreading out in huge rectangles from classical entrance colonnades. The bureaucratic decisions flowing from those offices came to this court for review.
When Judge Bazelon's secretary showed me into his office, the judge remained seated, the overhead lights making a halo of his silvery hair. He hardly looked up as he gestured me to a chair, across a large expanse of desktop covered with drafts of half-completed opinions and marked-up lawyers' briefs. On the wall behind his head he had hung a dramatic etching of himself—younger, ruggedly handsome, and darkly introspective. What kind of person decorates his office with such a picture of himself? I wondered. I knew that he gave inscribed etchings to his law clerks at the end of their year's clerkship, and many of these portraits decorated the offices of partners in the city's most prestigious firms.
Judge Bazelon wasted no time. "Look, I have just handed down an opinion that has huge implications for the way courts deal with insanity." He tossed the printed advance sheet, a little pamphlet, across the desk toward me. "The case will go back to the district court for a hearing and I want to make sure that it is handled right. Read the opinion and go back to the firm and tell them that I want you to handle the case in the district court. I'll bet that they will let you do it."
"What do you want me to do in the district court? Will there be an evidentiary hearing?"
"How do I know? I want you to figure it out. Our court has held that involuntary mental patients must be given adequate treatment. This poor schmuck Rouse has been in the hospital for four years after committing a misdemeanor. He's just a kid. It looks like they aren't giving him any treatment at all. He could spend the rest of his life there. And," he added, with a laugh, "if all else fails, you can try a writ of rachmunes."
"Rachmunes? What's that?"
"Don't you know any Yiddish?" he said with mock surprise. "Rachmunes is basic human feeling, compassion, sharing someone else's sorrow. This is the generation gap." True, my parents protected me from the Yiddish language as part of the project of making me thoroughly American, and I sometimes feared that the substance of rachmunes itself was lost in their desire to equip me to compete effectively in the American struggle to excel.
"Look, just read my opinion, talk to the big shots, and get back to me."
I left the courthouse thinking that the case Judge Bazelon had just handed me sounded like a big opportunity, and my supervisors at the firm agreed to let me handle it. At Yale Law School I had been inspired by the Justice Department's work under Robert Kennedy. He had created a separate division to promote civil rights for racial minorities, mirroring and supporting the work of effective civil rights advocates like Thurgood Marshall, who had used federal litigation patiently and systematically for decades to attack racial segregation. As I drove home that night, I imagined myself acting in the tradition of Kennedy and Marshall, bringing the law's protection to the helpless, neglected people confined in mental hospitals.
I had been intrigued by the issue of insanity and the criminal law ever since taking a law and psychiatry seminar at Yale that was taught jointly by two professors—one a lawyer, the other a psychoanalyst. Anna Freud co-taught the course as well, as a visiting professor. Her presence in the small, paneled seminar room lent it a special quality and everyone deferred to her comments. She wore long simple dresses and spoke softly, with an English accent, and with surprising diffidence.
We discussed moral responsibility, free will, and the limits of criminal penalties for mentally impaired people, analyzing legal, philosophical, and psychological issues. The psychoanalyst urged us to look more deeply at our own motivations lying behind our arguments. The mix of legal doctrine and psychological insight whetted my appetite to know more.
"Isn't it risky to give the psychiatrists too much authority?" Miss Freud asked in her soft voice. "It sounds like the psychiatrist is a magician who can determine with certainty whether a particular mental state causes a particular act. I am not sure that anyone can do that." That opinion about the psychiatric profession struck me as excessively modest, especially coming from Freud's daughter. At that time it seemed to me that psychiatrists had a fascinating and powerful tool for seeing into the human heart, penetrating the screen of words and rationalizations in which we wrap our actions. I was interested in exploring those mysterious depths, although it remained an academic inquiry for me.
* * *
The call to Judge Bazelon's office changed that. Far from an academic exercise, the task I was about to begin could transform the way the government treated mentally ill people. The core of the inquiry in law school was about the responsibility of insane people for their criminal conduct, never following the defendant into the mental hospital and asking what happened to him there, and how long he could be incarcerated. The Rouse case was an opportunity to begin a legal process of looking behind the walls of mental hospitals and reforming the hospitals' practices. I was flattered that Judge Bazelon had called on me to handle this case, and I liked the fact that I was going to be in charge, with final responsibility for making the decisions.
Several weeks later, I went to meet Charles Rouse on "S" Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the mental hospital run by the federal government for the District of Columbia. This was the hospital where Ezra Pound had been warehoused after World War II, rather than being tried for treason, and where John Hinkley has been held since he shot Ronald Reagan.
St. Elizabeths is on a large, campus-like tract of land spotted with century-old trees in rolling meadows, in a distant part of the District of Columbia, on the far side of the Anacostia River. The building for the criminally insane, the John Howard Pavilion, stands in a remote corner of the grounds. To get to Rouse's ward, I passed through four locked doors and a key-operated elevator. Most of the people on his ward had been found not guilty by reason of insanity, and some of them behaved in bizarre ways, staring, muttering, growling, gnawing their tongues. Later I learned that much of their behavior was induced by the drugs they were given, and the effects of their prolonged hospitalization and enforced idleness. The only activities available in the dayroom were TV and ping-pong. The nursing aides sat in a fortified bunker in the middle of the ward, encased in shatterproof glass and surrounded by files describing and categorizing the people on the ward and by the pills they could use to alter their behavior.
Rouse was a few years younger than I was. He looked like the kind of kid you'd find hanging around a garage in a small town after school, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve and a Coke in his hand, trying to look tougher than he was. I saw nothing bizarre or inappropriate about his behavior.
"I just want to get out of here," he said, as soon as we started talking. "Nobody is getting adequate treatment. They should just close this place down, take the locks off the doors and the security screens off the windows, and turn the hospital into a junior college."
At the outset, in Judge Bazelon's office, I was excited by the Rouse case, as an important, precedent-setting piece of test litigation. If I succeeded in proving that Rouse had not received adequate treatment and was entitled to be released, a new era of judicial scrutiny would begin, and mental hospitals could no longer be used as human warehouses.
After our meeting at the hospital, the nature of my commitment to the case changed. It was no longer a matter of abstract legal principles. Charles Rouse was a person, and I felt his youth had been taken from him. Indeed, if he had been convicted of the crime, the maximum sentence would have been one year. Instead, he was trapped in a Kafkaesque world of locked wards and thorazine, in which he tried his best to guess at the combination of changes in attitudes and behaviors he could make to get himself released. As I passed outside into the brilliant sunlight, I realized I wanted desperately to help him recover his freedom. I was beginning to get a sense that the commitment to lawyerly abstractions, even noble ones like due process and equal protection, was much stronger if it was coupled with human connection and empathy.
* * *
I began preparing for trial, reviewing Rouse's records and interviewing the psychiatrist in charge of his unit. According to the records, it appeared that there was no systematic plan for treating Rouse and that he was receiving virtually no treatment. The psychiatrist claimed that his ward was a "therapeutic milieu" and that confinement in such a place was in itself adequate treatment. It seemed to me that the milieu at St. Elizabeths was just about as therapeutic as the milieu in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Excerpted from Making Waves and Riding the Currents by Charles Halpern Copyright © 2008 by Charles Halpern. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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