Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Battle for New Rome

"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." - Jim Bouton, former pitcher for the New York Yankees.

For three decades I lived in the military world. For nearly two of those I was called a soldier. Occasionally I accepted dangerous tasks and even played a small role in a long-forgotten war. But I wasn't a warrior until I came to New Rome.

I lived in a bubble for most of my life, growing up as an Army brat and subsequently serving in the Air Force until my retirement at the age of 36. The contrast between the military world and the "real world" is staggering, and making the adjustment is a Herculean challenge. I've discussed this problem many times with ex-military friends and coworkers, and few of them made the transition easily.

The closed, patriarchical military world is an artificial world, but if you're inside of it you don't know it. For instance, the faux aristocracy of it seems perfectly normal when other people salute and call you "Sir" because you have a bachelor's degree. It seems normal to give orders and have them obeyed. It seems normal that in the military there is virtually no racism. It seems normal to receive a regular paycheck, an extra allowance for dependents, free health care, 30 days of paid vacation, and never worry about losing your job.

It seems perfectly normal to celebrate "promotions" when virtually everyone is promoted. It seems normal to stand at attention while someone pins medals and bright ribbons on your chest merely because you did your job or rifled 90% of your M-16 rounds through a target. It seems normal to receive "outstanding" performance appraisals, yet still be indistinguishable from your peers. And also, it seems normal for you and everyone else to behave in a generally virtuous manner.

In short, life in the military is safe, while life in the "real world" is dangerous.

It reminds me a bit of the Red Cross swimming class I took as a child. Those of us on Station Two at the shallow end of the pool, learning how to hold our breath for 20 seconds, were having a lot more fun than the kids on Station Ten or Twelve learning the Butterfly Stroke. They were at the deep end of the pool and they were all deadly serious.

Swimming at the deep end in the great pool of life tends to make some people more active, more carnivorous, and more corrupt. The great predators don't waste their time in shallow water. They are large and powerful, swim at great speeds, and do not slow down to accommodate others.

One of my first lessons at the deep end occurred upon entering the legal profession at the age of 44. There was a curious little hamlet named New Rome, located along a thousand feet of U.S. 40 --- the old "National Road" --- on the southwest edge of Columbus, Ohio. Despite its miniature size (or perhaps because of it), New Rome had a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a speed trap. I lived nearby in Hilliard but paid little attention to the goings-on next door. I, and most other drivers in Columbus, knew well enough to avoid U.S. 40.

New Rome had a total population of 60, which included 27 households. Of these, 14 were the homes of New Rome police officers. Most of the others were the homes of councilmembers and other city officials. Year after year, the fourteen police officers turned over $400,000 annually ---- more than $1000 per day ---- in traffic citations along their quarter-mile stretch of a single road.

One morning in January, 2003, I picked up a Columbus Dispatch newspaper containing an article which stirred me to act. New Rome police officers appeared without notice at an elementary school outside of New Rome, and demanded access to the private school records of two small children. They showed a criminal subpoena, and the records were surrendered.

The children happened to be the grandchildren of Ed Anthony, a barber and newly elected New Rome councilmember. Mr. Anthony was apparently the lone honest resident of New Rome, and he was determined to make the police force accountable. He was sufficiently discreet not to voice his platform prior to the election, but immediately upon taking office he demanded access to the city's books and declared his intent to "clean up" the local government and police force.

New Rome responded with their raid on the school records, which they hoped would show ---- through the childrens' emergency notification cards ---- that Mr. Anthony had a residence outside of New Rome, which they could argue was his primary address and thereby call into question his New Rome residency.

After reading the article I emailed the journalist who broke the story, and promised to represent Mr. Anthony at no cost if he wanted to fight back. Mr. Anthony called that afternoon and signed me up.

This was my very first case; I had nary a client, had never conducted a media interview, nor ever appeared in a courtroom as an attorney. But I was full of self-confidence and somehow felt obliged to dive into deep water and confront the predators from New Rome.

To acquire the subpoena, the New Rome police visited a Franklin County judge and made false criminal accusations against Mr. Anthony. One weakness of our criminal justice system is that judges, who may sign 20 subpoenas a day, do not have time to question or investigate the veracity of police officers. In my experience (including two years' experience as a City Prosecutor), the veracity of police officers is no more reliable than the veracity of anyone else. Yet judges must believe every word. They do not have the time or resources to do otherwise, and our system would grind to a halt if they did.

So I spent the next week in the law library, reading every case and legal code I could find related to criminal subpoenas and the police power. After another two or three days of writing I filed a Motion to Quash, supported by a 25-page legal brief, and demanded a court date with the Judge who had signed the subpoena. My filing created a big splash in the media, who loved nothing more than an excuse to write about New Rome. I was interviewed on the local news and for a brief period was a minor celebrity.

At last, the appointed hour arrived for me to make my first appearance as an attorney. Before the hearing, however, the court bailiff ushered me into chambers where I was introduced to the Judge, the New Rome City Attorney, and another high-powered attorney representing the School Board (who were concerned at their liability for illegally turning over private school records).

The Judge gave me the floor and I made my argument, citing case law from the Ohio Supreme Court and constitutional law and legislative intent and every other legal tool I remembered from law school. After ten minutes I was finished, and the Judge looked over to the New Rome City Attorney. It wasn't until that moment that I was struck with the sheer audacity of my counterattack, being a fresh fat whale in a pool of high-powered sharks.

But New Rome had no response. My argument was a winning argument, as I knew it would be. He conceded on the spot and signed an agreement to quash the subpoena without arguing the point in Court, thus ending the impeachment of Mr. Anthony as councilmember.

The drama, however, continued. Mr. Anthony asked me to sue New Rome and the School Board, if possible, and referred me to a local attorney who offered to assist with his law library and other resources. The attorney was a former police officer who had gone to law school and acquired his bar license. He was friendly at our first meeting and I treated him as I would have treated a higher-ranking military officer.

A few days later I received a phone call from my new attorney friend. He told me bluntly that I was too "green" to handle the case and demanded that I withdraw as Mr. Anthony's attorney.

To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. I thanked him for his opinion and declined to withdraw, and he suddenly flew into a rage. He said, "I'm coming over there to kick your ass!" I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood, and said, "You're going to beat me up???" He said, "Fuck yeah!!"

Well there was no misunderstanding that. I laughed, told him to do whatever he needed to do, and hung up. I wasn't afraid as much as I was completely and totally stupified. This man wasn't merely an experienced attorney ---- he was a former police officer. At that moment it seemed that all of the years I spent in the shallow water of military life, all of the decades of respecting institutions and honoring the people in them, the whole product of 44 years of living ---- suddenly exploded. The "real world" was nothing at all like the one I had known in the military, a point since confirmed by other experiences on literally dozens of occasions.

Two days later Mr. Anthony called to tell me was replacing me with my antagonist, and two weeks after that I moved to Dayton.

The village of New Rome was dissolved later that year when the Attorney General of Ohio introduced to the General Assembly one of the most unique laws in the history of representative goverment. The particulars of the bill ---- which passed and became law ---- provided for the dissolution of any incorporated village in Ohio with fewer than 150 residents, which provided few or no public services, and had a "pattern of wrongdoing or incompetence."

I like to think that I was a soldier in the Battle for New Rome. Another soldier, certainly, was the brave and virtuous barber, Ed Anthony. Another was a certain web genius whose sister was victimized in New Rome, and who subsequently published a website to keep New Rome in the public eye ---- a website you can visit here:

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