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Jack Smith

Courting the line between sanity and insanity, an impostor makes a declaration of independence

February 02, 1987|Jack Smith

Milton Most, a commissioner of the Superior Court in San Fernando, has sent me a story that suggests the truth of the old saw that the line between sanity and insanity is very fine.

Most and I were classmates at Belmont High School, and his long career as a jurist has fulfilled our motto--"Enter to learn, go forth to serve."

Some years ago, when he was practicing law, he had a client who had been in and out of several mental institutions. To protect his privacy, Most calls him Sam.

Like many people who are thought to be insane, Sam had a flair for impersonating successful people. We often read of some imposter who has passed for years as a doctor, sometimes producing just as good a record of cures as his legitimate colleagues. More than one lawyer has been exposed as a fraud, too, never having studied law or passed the bar.

Sam first came to the notice of mental health authorities when he slipped into the office of a company president during the noon hour and began to run the business. When the president returned, he found Sam seated at his desk, making telephone calls and giving orders.

I am reminded at this point of Laurence J. Peter's celebrated law: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

It is not improbable that the president in this story had risen to his level of incompetence, and that Sam perhaps had not yet achieved his.

In any case, the police were called and Sam was removed from the president's office and placed temporarily in an institution where it was thought he belonged.

"After that," Most recalls, "Sam used to drop in to see me several times a year. He really wasn't very different from the rest of my clients."

Then one day Most got a desperate phone call from Sam. He was in the psychiatric ward at Los Angeles County Hospital and wanted Most to get him out.

Most went to the hospital to talk with his client, and he asked if Sam had any legal ideas that might help spring him. Sam suggested that he use the Declaration of Independence, Article 3.

Most advised him that unfortunately the Declaration of Independence has no Article 3. Sam's thinking that it had an Article 3, and that it might be cited in support of his release, indicated, it would seem, that Sam was indeed crazy or at least ignorant.

Years later Most and his wife, Herma, were in Washington and paid a visit to the Supreme Court, which was then hearing the appeal of two Florida police officers who had been convicted of burglary.

"Their appeal was based on the use of television cameras in the courtroom without their permission, which was then permitted under Florida law," Most recalls.

First the attorney general of Florida stood up in a handsome swallow-tailed coat to argue the state's side of the case; he was followed by the Dade County district attorney, also splendidly attired.

The defense attorney was next. Though less impressive than his adversaries sartorially, he was no less earnest in his argument. He was working up to a climax when, much to the astonishment of the court, he cited the Declaration of Independence in support of his plea.

At this point, Justice William Rehnquist leaned forward from the bench and interjected: "Counsel, the Declaration of Independence is not a part of the Constitution."

"The incident has stayed in my mind," Most says, "because in over 30 years of law practice and judicial duties, the only two times I have ever heard the Declaration of Independence cited as legal authority were in the Los Angeles County Hospital psycho ward and the United States Supreme Court."

Most doesn't say how the case turned out, but I trust that the Florida defense attorney, unlike poor Sam, was not arrested and incarcerated in a psycho ward.

Of course the Declaration of Independence is a document that separates the Colonies from British authority; it does not guarantee individual citizen rights, as the Constitution does.

Maybe Sam was thinking of Article III of the Bill of Rights--the Third Amendment; but since that article protects homeowners from quartering soldiers in peace or war, except in a manner to be prescribed by law, it hardly seems to have applied to Sam.

As for the Florida defense lawyer, he might have thought that his clients were entitled to the protection of the Declaration of Independence's affirmation of all men's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and meant to argue that in being convicted of burglary they were deprived of those rights.

Courtrooms and the law are great sources of humor.

My favorite lawyer was a little guy named Sammy Hahn, who made a lot of money before he drowned himself in his swimming pool out of ennui.

Sammy was a scrapper. In one celebrated case he was opposed by a lawyer who had been a colonel in World War I and was invariably addressed by the judge and other principals as "Colonel." Hahn protested, offering documented evidence that he had served in World War I as a corporal.

"Your honor," he said, "I was in the Argonne. I did not see the colonel there."

Hahn demanded that he be addressed thereafter as "Corporal," and he was. As Cpl. Hahn, he won the case.

I have no doubt that Hahn would have cited the Declaration of Independence if he thought it might help a client.

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