by Alan M. Dershowitz
Tolstoy famously wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy was wrong, especially when it comes to fabulously wealthy families. Their unhappiness seems to follow a pattern. I know. I have represented too many of them during my half century career as a lawyer.
The pattern tends to be as follows: toward the end of his life, the rich, self-made billionaire falls in love, or at least in lust, with a young woman from a lower class background. He falls in love with her youth and beauty. She falls in love with his money and his advancing age…
Seward Johnson, the patriarch of the pharmaceutics family, did not have to lie about his age to Basia Piasecka. He was 76 and the multimillionaire heir to the Johnson and Johnson Band-Aid fortune. She was 34, a recent immigrant from Poland and a former chambermaid at the family estate. When he died 12 years after marrying Basia, he left nearly his entire fortune to his young wife, essentially disinheriting his six adult children from two previous marriages. The children had already received millions of dollars from their father, but they wanted it all. So they contested Seward Johnson’s will, accusing Basia of all manner of wrongdoing in getting the old man to disinherit them and give her all the money. The ensuing legal battle, pitting some of New York City’s most revered law firms against each other, is the stuff of a Dickens novel. One of the leading characters is a Dickensonian judge who was tinged with eccentricity and a whiff of corruption. Another is a young lawyer, who eventually became famous for her culinary guide books—Nina Zagat.
The author of this account is the American non-fiction equivalent of Charles Dickens—David Margolick. There is no finer writer of legal non-fiction than this extraordinary reporter, who covered the legal beat for the New York Times and himself is a distinguished graduate of Stanford Law School.
…We live in a time when millions of poor people need lawyers to prevent foreclosure of their homes, to assure that they receive adequate medical care to which they are entitled, to protect them against unjust and Draconian criminal sentences, and to help create a semblance of fairness and equality in our legal system. In New York City, where the Johnson case took place, the legal aid agency is underfunded and indigent defendants too often receive inadequate legal defenses, despite the heroic efforts of their underpaid lawyers. While this inequality persists, billions of dollars in legal fees are wasted on the greedy super-rich who misuse lawyers to try to get even richer. In a nation committed to equality before the law, this situation is intolerable.
No one can come away from reading Undue Influence without concluding that major overhauls are required in the provision of legal services to the rich and the poor alike. Let the rich spend as much as they want fighting each other over mega-dollar wills, as long as sufficient legal resources are provided to those whose lives and liberty may turn on the quality of their legal representation. To be sure, some of the same law firms that made millions of dollars on this case also provide some pro bono assistance to the poor. But it is not enough. No individual law firm or lawyer can change the system. I try to do my part, by devoting half of my time to pro bono representation. What is required is systemic change.
Perhaps there ought to be a tax on litigation of this kind, with the proceeds supporting legal aid agencies and others who provide needed legal services to the indigent. Certainly the current legal system is not doing its job of providing equal justice to the rich and poor alike. As Anatole France once put it, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” To turn a phrase, the law, in its majestic equality, allows the rich and the poor alike to spend millions of dollars litigating cases that should have been settled.
Alan M. Dershowitz
July 2, 2014
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