Gwen is now being represented by lawyer Peter Barron in her efforts to regain custody of her four-year-old, Casey, who has been removed to foster care for one week for observation based on bogus charges of bruises invented out of thin air by social worker Donna. But what do we really know about Peter? We know that he is a born again Christian who prays before meals, and that his religious beliefs prevent him from marrying women divorced on “unbiblical” grounds, but that’s about it. Today we get to know Peter more thoroughly, and meet the rest of his team.
First, our regular installment from the Spokane guidebook:
Peter Barron’s office location was strategic for small firms or solo practitioners. It was in the core of the business district connected to the skywalk system. The Paulsen Building was an older but well-maintained building which did not demand unreasonably high rent. And more importantly for beginning firms, the Spokane County Law Library was located on the tenth floor of the building. This saved the enormous expense of buying one’s own legal collection in the early days of practice.
And actually, I’m going to call curtains there, because there’s more about how the most prestigious law firms in Spokane had their offices in the upper floors of the newer bank buildings, and how they had their own law libraries and would send a clerk to Gonzaga Law Library if they needed, and so forth.
Next we learn that Peter has been practicing law on his own for three years, and that he spent the three years before that practicing law “across the street in the Old National Bank Building” as a “promising associate with the firm of Parker, Thompson, Traughber & Darling,” for whom he had clerked part time during his last two years at Gonzaga Law School. Farris tells us that if he had stayed with the firm another year, he would have been offered a partnership, but that he “decided to leave and go into solo practice.” Why, you ask? Excellent question!
It was an amicable parting. Peter merely wanted to avoid the impulse of a large law firm to cause a partner to become too specialized. The pay would have been fantastic, but he wanted a wider range of practice.
This is one area where Farris’s writing is a bit fuzzy, because this is not Peter’s only reason for leaving the firm, as Farris makes clear two paragraphs later.
The second reason he left the firm was one which Peter kept to himself and his closest friend, Aaron Roberts.
In other words, it wasn’t that Peter “merely” wanted to avoid specializing, it was simply that that was what he told the firm when he left, to ensure that the parting was amicable. Given Peter’s upfront concern about the propriety of marrying a woman not divorced on biblical grounds, I think we can probably all guess as to Peter’s real reason for setting off on his own.
Peter’s Christian faith occasionally came into conflict with the firm’s practices. The issues were not unethical in a conventional sense—Parker, Thompson, Traughber & Darling practiced the highest standard of legal ethics. Peter simply was bothered by the idea of being a partner with a firm that was deeply involved in divorce work and the defense of criminals, whether or not they were really guilty.
Um, if a criminal isn’t guilty, they’re not a criminal. Also, even guilty parties should have access to lawyers. It’s how our legal system works!
He knew that his views were not shared by all other born-again Christians, but his own inner being simply was not comfortable being directly involved in breaking up marriages and defending the truly guilty.
Okay, question: How does Peter know who is “truly guilty”? For instance, he met Gwen in the last chapter and just immediately bought that she was innocent. I mean we, the readers, know that she is innocent (i.e. there were no bruises on Casey). But how exactly does Peter know that? He doesn’t. He just made a snap judgement. If he’s that concerned about not defending someone who is guilty, shouldn’t he have done some due diligence—say, asked for references or something—before agreeing to defend a parent against accusations of child abuse?
This goes way, way beyond this book. As my regular readers know, the book’s author, Michael Farris, is the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA. From what I have read and from what I have heard from others, it appears that the HSLDA defends its member families (and others) against social workers and allegations of educational neglect without first making sure they are not guilty of the accusations. When parents face child abuse allegations, HSLDA appears to simply assume they are innocent, without even taking the time to check.
Now maybe this is changing, I don’t know. Maybe blogs like mine and Homeschoolers Anonymous, and alumni organizations like Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out and the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, are making a difference. But this book was published in 1996, well before the emergence of HSLDA’s whistleblowers, and what we see Peter doing here—de facto assuming that Gwen is innocent—appears to be exactly what HSLDA was doing as well.
We learn that Peter’s firm has been growing, and that he has now hired an associate, Joe Lambert, a graduate of the University of Idaho. Joe was “an assistant United States Attorney” for the first few years he practiced law, but decided to leave that position “after the Clinton administration replaced the Republican who had been Joe’s boss.” Farris tells us that Joe “met Peter through the Spokane chapter of the Christian Legal Society during their monthly luncheon meeting.”
So basically, this section is Farris checking as many boxes as he possibly can. We also learn that Peter is 32 and that his birthday is March 25th.
Now we turn to the present.
Joe had just begun to discuss the clients’ wills with them when Peter burst into the office twenty-five minutes late.
He thanked and excused Joe and apologized profusely to the couple, telling them the truth. He had run into a woman at the courthouse who had a legal emergency involving the custody of her child. The retired couple, who attended Peter’s church, Valley Fourth Memorial, were sympathetic and understanding.
Okay so first, note the being twenty-five minutes late, but okay. Second, isn’t talking about another client’s case a breach of confidentiality? Third, Peter did not in fact tell the couple “the truth.” If he had he would have mentioned, you know, the fact that said woman was accused of child abuse. That seems, you know, relevant. Third, of course the couple is “sympathetic and understanding” vis a vis Gwen, because that seems to be the attitude of absolutely everyone in this book toward her, except of course for bad-guy Donna the social worker and bad-guy Gail the prosecutor. I mean good gravy, both the judge and the foster family were sympathetic and understanding.
We also now have the church name drop. I did some digging, and it appears that in 1972 Fourth Memorial Church established a sister church, Valley Fourth Memorial, which has since changed its name to Valley Fourth Church. Farris is from Spokane, so we can probably assume that he attended this church at some point.
After the clients are on their way, Peter calls Joe and Sally in for an “emergency conference.” Joe, remember, is his associate, and Sally is both the secretary and the bookkeeper. Because you know, we have to keep the gender roles all separate here and everything. Lawyers are men, secretaries are women. And female lawyers like Gail are the bad guys, of course. Just so we’re clear.
“I have just taken on a case with a great deal of urgency,” Peter began.
“I hope it pays well,” said Sally, who was not only the firm’s secretary but also the bookkeeper. The firm was doing reasonably well, but there were months that it took until the 30th to come up with all the necessary revenue to cover the bills.
“It’ll be OK. Don’t worry about it,” Peter replied.
Joe and Sally looked at each other and grinned. “Another time payment case,” they said in mock unison.
“Ha, ha,” Peter replied with an annoyed voice but smiling eyes.
I don’t know enough about law firms, especially three-year-old law firms, to say anything about Farris’s definition of “reasonably well.” But here we see that Peter’s willingness to work cases even if the person can’t pay isn’t limited to Gwen and her gorgeous eyes. For Farris, and for his readers, this is an example of Christian service, and of how the world should work. And except for Peter’s willingness to assume innocence without any background checking and the fact that he does need to keep things in the black or he’ll be unable to help anyone, I can’t say that I disagree.
Peter explains that the case should be over in a week.
“I want the two of you to get together and scrutinize my schedule. Joe, I want you to take over anything you believe is within your experience level, and look at everything else to see if it can be continued, postponed, or cancelled. Come back to me in an hour with a list of everything that I simply must do between now and next Tuesday. The hearing in this case is Tuesday at ten and I want to focus as much time as possible on it. OK?”
I don’t know much about how law firms like this operate, so I’m not sure whether this sort of complete clearing of his schedule is a common thing (i.e. something that happens when a legal emergency comes up) or a not-so-common thing. I do think it’s worth mentioning that being a Good Christian Gentleman by taking on Gwen’s case and defending a Damsel in Distress does come with tradeoffs—namely, his regular clients may be less well represented or have their appointments postponed or even cancelled. Is that the Christian thing to do? Presumably, I suppose, his clients will all be as sympathetic and understanding as the retired couple from his church.
Now back to the conversation. After Peter gives these orders, Sally responds with a “tongue-in-cheek” salute while Joe, naturally curious, asks about the case.
“A single mom lost custody of her child this morning to CPS in a hearing before Judge Romer. She’s a nurse at Sacred Heart and I think she’s innocent. Bill Walinski represented her.”
“No wonder she lost,” interjected Joe, who had prosecuted a couple of drug dealers Walinski had represented in federal court. Joe sent them to the federal pen with maximum sentences.
At least Peter admits that he “thinks” she’s innocent. And so I’m wondering, what would he do if he worked further on the case and became convinced that she was guilty? Would he drop the case, after clearing his schedule? Has he even thought about that possibility?
Peter tells Joe about Bill’s indecent proposal (because everyone has to know about this, of course), and then adds he plans to forgive Gwen’s $25/mo payment plan once the cases is over. Because he’s just nice like that.
“Did Walinski have a good reason to make his pitch, or was he bottom fishing?” Joe asked out of Sally’s hearing.
“She is gorgeous. Incredibly gorgeous.”
“And available?” Joe asked, goading Peter just a bit. Joe was happily married with a three-year-old son.
“Not for me,” Peter replied. “She was divorced without scriptural grounds. You know my rule.
Joe shrugged and smiled, wishing his highly eligible boss would find the right Christian woman to marry and settle down.
Umm . . .
First, a woman being gorgeous and available is not a “good reason” for a lawyer to sexually harass her. Period. I mean, what even is that?! Second, it sounds like Peter works really hard to make sure everyone around him knows he can’t marry women divorced without biblical grounds. Does it really come up that often? Third, Joe finds out a woman was sexually harassed by her previous lawyer, and his response is to suggest, even jokingly, that maybe Peter should have a try at her, since he’s unmarried and needs a wife and all? Really?!
Also, I definitely foresee Joe and Good Christian Wife having Gwen and Casey over for dinner later in the book. That way Good Christian Wife Mrs. Joe can be a Good Christian Influence on Gwen, and Joe can invite Peter too and push Gwen at him, as it sounds like Joe is the sort to do. Happy times, that!
With all of this out of the way, Peter explains to Joe that “there actually may be a way to make some real money off this case after we win this round,” and divulges his plan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against CPS. “They strip-searched a four-year-old girl without a warrant,” he explains. Joe points out that such cases are difficult (“when the courts hear ‘child abuse,’ all the normal rules of constitutional law just seem to sail out the window’), and Peter says he hasn’t mentioned it to Gwen yet so as not to get up his hopes, but we’re definitely getting a quick preview of the rest of the book here.
Joe ends their conversation with this:
“We’ll clear the decks for you, Peter. This may not be the most important case we ever get involved in legally or financially, but after what happened to this lady with Walinski, it may be one of the most noble things our firm will ever do.”
“Get to work,” Peter said in mock anger.
I think Farris is trying to make Peter out to be a “fun” boss, whose secretary isn’t afraid to give a mock salute and who isn’t afraid to play around with his associate.
But I want to push back against something here. I thought that, for Peter, whether defending someone in court was noble or not hinged on whether or not they were innocent. We know that Gwen is innocent, but Peter and Joe don’t. What if Casey was abused, and Peter defended Gwen and got Casey returned, and she lived a life of abuse at her mother’s hands—would all of this be justified because Bill sexually harassed Gwen? Like, “Sorry your life sucked, kid, but someone had to do a good turn for your mom because her previous lawyer attempted to prey on her sexually.” I’m sure that would totes make Casey feel better! So while I get wanting to do something about the fact that Bill sexually harassed Gwen, but that something ought to be reporting it to the bar association, not something totally unrelated like getting her kid back.
Next week we’ll see Peter start his investigation, and I suspect that Good Lawyer Peter will be quick in finding the places where the CPS case does not match up. As we readers know, CPS has falsified their reports in at least two places—they changed the date of the initial anonymous tip and completely falsified the report of finding bruises. Once these things come out the entire case will unravel.
Gwen is innocent of the allegations, and Peter will (presumably) soon find proof of this. This is a weird book to read given that I find myself excited to see Peter find and expose the fault lines in the CPS case (who doesn’t like that sort of story?), but at the same time upset with Peter that he seems to care so little about Casey’s wellbeing as to simply assume that Gwen is innocent. I mean yes, Gwen is innocent. But what if she wasn’t? Would Peter even take the time to find out, or would he simply assume CPS is lying, even without any evidence of corruption or coverup?