Harmless error: what if everybody did that?

Of all the professions claiming to be based on reason rather than revelation, only law makes a positive virtue of refusing to correct its own mistakes. We love it when an appellate decision recites a string of outrageous trial errors but finds them all harmless because the defendant was guilty anyway. As if only innocent people should get a fair trial.

What if doctors were like that? “Okay, so we cut off the wrong leg. But it’s clearly harmless because you’d be one-legged even if we’d cut off the right one.”

What if air traffic controllers were like that? “With so many planes, of course we can’t be expected to land every one safely. So, half of them crash – at least we have finality.”

What if plumbers were like that?
[Scene: RESPECTABLE HOUSEHOLDER in his house with water rising from the basement. He frantically dials the phone]

RH: Hello, Vesuvio Plumbing? This is the Rehnquist residence. All the pipes have burst! I’m standing up to my ankles in water!

VP: We finished installing them yesterday.

RH: That’s my point! You really messed up!

VP: You’re entitled to fair plumbing, not perfect plumbing. You didn’t complain when we installed the pipes. So you can’t be heard to complain now.

RH: Of course I can, you can hear me perfectly well! I demand that you come back and fix the pipes!

VP: We view all pipes in the light most favorable to the plumber. Which is pitch darkness. Applying the presumption of regularity, pipes are presumed to carry water from one place to another. Leaks, if any, are harmless.

RH: Harmless! I’m up to my knees in water. And I’m on the third floor!

VP: Our paperwork says, “Job successfully completed.” We see no reason to disturb that determination. After all, the plumber saw and heard the pipes.

RH: Glub, glub, glub.

VP: (with satisfaction) Yessiree, we guarantee our customers finality.

About Appellate Squawk

A satirical blog for criminal defense lawyers and their friends who won't give up without a squawk.
This entry was posted in Criminal law, Law, Law & Parody and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Harmless error: what if everybody did that?

  1. not covinced says:

    Actually, we put up with less-than-perfect all the time. I buy a McDonalds 99-cent cheeseburger, because I don’t feel like paying for chez panisse. An 18-year-old takes a full ride at Michigan because she would rather not pay for MIT.

    Or some others that hit closer to home. An appellate lawyer does a B+ job on the brief, but because better arguments or a better writing style wouldn’t have made a difference, we don’t allow the client to sue and take the lawyer’s house. An aspiring attorney misses lots of answers on the bar exam — but still does well enough to pass.

    Indeed, even in the kinds of examples you give, good enough sometimes is good enough. A doctor can screw up lots of things in the delivery — but if the baby and mother are healthy, chances are nobody’s going to care.

    Grown-ups tend to recognize that life is not perfect. The question is how to devise a fair, just, and wise allocation of error-correction. That may or may not be the system we have now. But bellyaching about how everyone should have an error free trial is pretty silly.

    • “Actually, we put up with less-than-perfect all the time…”

      An opening that clearly signals that the rest of the comment will proceed to ignore the actual content of the blog post. Well done.

  2. Pingback: Crocodile Tears | Lawyers on Strike

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