By: Ashley Garman
In The Trial, Kafka presents a picture of the legal system as the king of all bureaucracies. The path to “justice”, per Kafka, is a maddening, endless chain of seemingly arbitrary requirements: submit these briefs, show up here at this time, wait here, say this not that, et cetera.
Recently, I was reminded of a real-life example about how arbitrary requirements of the legal bureaucracy can be. In September of 2007, Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the highest criminal court in Texas, refused to keep the court open an extra 20 minutes past its closing time to accept the appeal of death row inmate Michael Richards. Richard’s lawyers were trying to obtain a stay of Richard’s execution until the United States Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of lethal injection. A computer malfunction caused a delay in the pleadings, Judge Keller instructed her clerks to close the court promptly at 5:00pm, and Richards was executed the next morning.
Regardless of one’s view on capital punishment (a morally charged issue of its own, but not relevant to this post), it’s clear that Richards was executed that morning not because of the merits of his appeal, but because the clock struck the arbitrary hour of 5:00pm before his appeal reached the court.
Of course, in this case, there is more going on here than just the bureaucracy of the legal system. Judge Keller’s actions may not even have been legally acceptable. On the eve of executions it is normal for a judge to accept late pleadings; in fact, the state’s judicial conduct commission is investigating Judge Keller’s conduct, which could lead to her impeachment.
It seems then, that this is a perfect example of how, though the legal trumps the moral, often politics and bias can trump even the legal. In The Trial, Joseph K. had no hope of winning his case, because the line of his lip and the fact that he professed his innocence made people certain he was guilty. In To Kill A Mockingbird, racism prevented Tom Robinson from any chance of acquittal. It seems clear that what happened in this case is that a Republican judge from Texas, with certain views on capital punishment, had those views in mind when Richards’s lawyers asked her to keep the court open a few more minutes.