A few weeks ago, the Manhattan District Attorney decided to take a break from prosecuting people for taking up more than one seat in the subway and drop into New York’s highest court for a spot of oral argument. He had to be in Albany anyway, lobbying to put everybody’s DNA in the hands of the cops, so why not take the opportunity to get a little face time in front of the Magnificent Seven?
This was the most historic event for the D.A.’s office since Thomas Dewey prosecuted Legs Diamond, and that as publicity stunts go, it was as daring as shooting fish in a pail. And what a payoff! “Court of Appeals Live” is the hottest daytime reality show in town, with ratings second only to Judge Judy. What better way to get 15 minutes of fame? (That’s 13 minutes plus 2 minutes of rebuttal time if you’re the appellant).
Here’s the top secret meeting that led up to DA Vandal’s guest appearance:
Scene: Vandal’s secret bunker underneath the Dept. of Motor Vehicles
Vandal: Consarn it, another dangerous criminal acquitted on a technicality! A serious blow to public safety! Order another 30,000 police fences to be randomly scattered around lower Manhattan.
Assistant #1: Boss, she was only selling umbrellas from a shopping cart –
Vandal: A recidivist career criminal who thinks she can take advantage of rainy weather to undermine the U.S. economy. Say, are you getting soft on crime, or what?
Assistant #1: Er, no, no of course not! But charging her with grand larceny, insider trading and plotting to overthrow the government –
Vandal: And why haven’t I been on t.v. for two weeks? When Daddy was my age he was in the newspapers every day!
Assistant #2: Well, you turned down the Jerry Springer show –
Vandal: Did I ever tell you about the time President Carter sent Daddy a bushel of peanuts from his farm?
Assistant #3: (who’s heard this story 50 times) Say, Boss, I’m just thinking out loud here, but how about doing an oral argument in the Court of Appeals?
Vandal: I can’t memorize a lot of legal argle-bargle.
Assistant #4: No prob, we’ll have our Appeals Bureau in there holding up cue cards.
Vandal: Yeah, but what if I lose?
Assistant #3: That’s all taken care of. They’ve found you a nice Sandoval brief. Piece of cake. Walk in the park. Easy-peasy.
Naturally we and our fellow squawks piled into Supersquawk’s tiny office to watch the show, streaming live on his computer. Radiating the warmth and geniality of a nickel bag, Vandal kicked off by conceding that the trial judge hadn’t done “a perfect incantation of Sandoval language.” This got the Court’s back up. Everybody knows a Sandoval hearing is a meaningless ritual to keep the defendant from testifying but we don’t say so.
The trial judge, affectionately known as She in Front of Whom Nobody Can Get a Word in Edgewise, had ruled that if the defendant testified, the People could ask him about all of his prior drug sale convictions. Considering that the man was being tried for unlicensed vending of these same frowned-upon substances, the jury might have been a teeny bit prejudiced by hearing that he’d done it before.
“Nonsense!” said Vandal. “It wasn’t the least bit prejudicial. The priors were only being used for credibility.”
“How?” asked Chief Judge Flipman of the sorrowful countenance.
“Because he was engaged in a commercial enterprise,” retorted Vandal in the tone of one unaccustomed to being asked to explain himself.
“What’s an example of something that would be prejudicial?” someone asked.
“Maybe if the judge let the People bring in that the defendant had made fifteen other drug sales. On the same block,” answered Vandal cautiously, hoping he hadn’t just described the facts of the next case. “And the Appellate Divisions are active bulwarks against abuse of discretion,” he added, alluding to their 98.9% affirmance rate.
Here’s how the Court decided the case. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Scene: Court of Appeals conference room.
Judge Flipman: Nothing is more important that the right of the accused to a fair trial. It’s our sacred duty to uphold that right.
Judge Doe: You mean we should give that criminal a windfall and overturn the conviction?
Judge Poe: And go up against Vandal? No way! Look what he did to Judge Mullet a few months back. Thought she was giving too lenient a sentence and publicly strongarmed her into changing it after she’d already accepted the guilty plea.
Judge Joe: If we don’t rule in his favor, none of us will be able to park in the city without getting towed.
Judge Toe: Or ride the subway without being prosecuted for Unlawfully Occupying More Than One Seat.
Judge Shoe: Or hail a cab for somebody else without being prosecuted for Unlawful Hailing of a Cab.
Judge Toe: He only prosecutes homeless people for that.
Judge Shoe: I’m sure he’ll be happy to extend it to us.
Judge Flipman: Relax, all we have to say is that we fervently and uncompromisingly uphold the Constitution. And that we find no abuse of discretion.