Anonymous Tip: Peter Breaks the Rules

Anonymous Tip: Peter Breaks the Rules December 16, 2016

A Review Series of Anonymous Tip, by Michael Farris

Pp. 456-459

We’re still at the Supreme Court. Peter goes on, this time talking about the tampering allegations. At the end of his time he almost forgets the standard final words and starts to walk back to his seat, but remembers just in time.

There was a brief titter among the lawyers section for his rookie error at the very end. But every knowledgeable person in the courtroom was deeply impressed with all other aspects of the maiden voyage of Peter Barron, Esq., before the Supreme Court bar.

I don’t usually read a lot of fiction (I don’t have the time), but I’ve picked up a new detective series that I absolutely love this year. And frankly, reading her writing—good writing—has made the shortcomings in Farris’ writing only more clear. Now, Farris is somewhat of an amateur at fiction. He’s a lawyer. He runs HSLDA. He’s not a novelist as a career. That makes it feel somewhat unfair to judge his writing too harshly. But sometimes drawing attention to issues in Farris’ writing is relevant, because it contributes to larger critiques.

The author of the detective series I’m reading would never tell her readers outright that “every knowledgeable person in the courtroom was deeply impressed” the way Farris does here. True enough, the books are written in first person. Farris does head-hopping, writing in third person but hopping from perspective to perspective. He blurs the line, in a way. Even Farris’s use of the term “knowledgeable person” raises questions—what does he mean by that? All lawyers, with training? It’s unclear in a way that almost sounds elitist.

Perhaps the underlying problem here is that Farris engages in a lot of “tell, don’t show,” which isn’t generally considered good writing. He could have said the younger lawyers tittered at Farris’s mistake, but several of the more established lawyers made a note to look up and reread the cases Farris had mentioned, or something like that that would indicate that they were taking him seriously. The “tell, don’t show” bit is compounded further by Farris’s constantly having everyone fawn over Peter. It feels very Mary Sue:

Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.

Anyway, back to the Supreme Court, where it’s Gail’s turn:

Gail Willet’s performance was technically perfect. She was smooth. Her answers demonstrated thought, preparation, and knowledge of the relevant precedents.

But Justice Rose went after her in a relentless fashion that frightened Stephen Stockton to his core. It was obvious that his boss was going to be writing the opinion which attacked the constitutionality of his girlfriend’s actions. The only question was whether his opinion would be the majority or the dissent.

This bit from Gail’s closing remarks caught my eye:

“If we make child-abuse workers the target of every fee-hungry lawyer in America, we will have timid child-abuse workers and more of the battered and broken and lifeless bodies that are the real statistics of child abuse.”

I am absolutely a proponent of accountability for every law enforcement or related official (including social workers employed by the state), but what Gail says here is in fact true. I know it’s true because I’ve seen it happen with homeschooling, specifically.

When a school district brings educational neglect actions  against a homeschool family that is members of HSLDA, that family goes to HSLDA and HSLDA writes a letter to the school district. The same thing with social workers—HSLDA immediately gets on the phone when a social worker visits an HSLDA-member’s family. There is a chilling effect. School districts don’t have the money for long and costly legal battles. Social workers have too many calls to attend to as it is. Several fellow homeschool graduates I’ve spoken with have recounted reporting their parents’ abuse or educational neglect of their younger siblings to the authorities only to have their parents have HSDLA scare social workers and/or the school district off the case.

Yes, having access to lawyers is important. We desperately need to fund our public defender system more adequately. But when we’re talking about child abuse, we’re not just talking about the parent’s rights, we’re talking about the children’s rights as well. In Farris’s world, the children don’t have access to a lawyer, the parents do. We need limits and safeguards, yes, and I am absolutely against social workers (or law enforcement) falsifying records or going after individuals they know are innocent. But this isn’t at all as simple as Farris wants to make it.

“Be careful in your rebuttal,” French whispered. “She was pure emotion. It will gain her a little, but the law wins votes.”

This is how Farris talks about children’s rights advocates too, as though they’re all emotion, all zealots, all focusing on fluff and not fact. But child abuse is very real. And yes, it’s something people get emotional about. If Farris doesn’t want social workers to be able to enter families’ homes, is he proffering a solution? It’s all well and fine to argue that X thing social workers do goes too far, but too often both Peter and Farris’s solutions still focus on the parent rather than the child. Protecting the parent is logic, facts, rights. Protecting the child is emotion, fluff.

Farris’ parental rights organization’s website, as you may remember, bears this byline: “Protecting Children by Empowering Parents.” That’s all well and good if we’re talking about parents’  education, job training, and employment; or affordable housing options; or parents’ involvement in their children’s education. But how does empowering parents protect children from child abuse, exactly? Sure, it might protect children from being separated from their parents over false child abuse allegations. But child abuse is a very real thing that actually does happen in too many families. What protects children then, exactly?

We’re now to Peter’s rebuttal, and the Chief Justice (whom Farris does not name here) wrecks Peter’s planned rebuttal by asking this question:

“Today you argue that you should be allowed to sue for the document tampering because it occurred after the state child-abuse suit had been completely concluded. Why didn’t you raise that issue in the lower courts?”

Uh oh.

“Two quick parts of an answer. First, we alleged the facts including the timing of the tampering. We advanced a theory that Gwen Landis should be allowed to sue for that act of fraud. It is our position that we raised the issue. The other side certainly had notice of the issue. But did we raise the argument as precisely as we did in this Court? No, Your Honor I did not. And the only reason I didn’t is that I simply didn’t recognize the argument until someone with more experience pointed it out to me. I guess that’s why I practice law—I practice because I am far from perfect.”

I feel like you don’t say something like that in front of the Supreme Court.

Peter’s spirit was rejoicing in his honest answer. But his lawyer’s mind told him that he had just admitted his incompetence and it would cost him the case.

And here’s the problem—Peter isn’t just responsible to his rigid (but sometimes weirdly flexible) personal ethics system, he’s also responsible to Gwen. How would you feel if you hired a lawyer, and he or she essentially threw your case? Look, I’m all for people being ethical. But if he was going to be this rigidly ethical, Peter should probably have dropped his appeal as soon as he realized he’d messed up by not raising this issue before—or he should have refrained from raising this issue in his Supreme Court briefs.

If you decide you’re going to go to the Supreme Court making a new argument, when that is not allowed, you’ve already decided that you’re going to argue that it’s not a new argument. To go to the Supreme Court and make a new argument, and then admit that it’s a new argument when asked, is just weird.

“Hurry!” Professor French said. “Pack your things and let’s go out the side. The Chief will call the next case in seconds and will get mad if we dawdle.”

Peter’s heart sank. The professor was disappointed. He could tell.

Well, yeah. See above. Professor French spent a lot of time preparing Peter for this, and he knew this argument was new, too—he’s the one who told Peter he could find a way to wheedle it in and present it as not-new. Farris acted on his advice, at least until he was asked directly whether the argument was new, at which point he laid his soul bare before the Supreme Court, admitting that he was wasting their time by raising a new argument.

Professor French leads Peter and Gwen from the room.

He quickly paced down the hall and ducked into the cloak room at its end. “Yes! Peter,” he said putting his arm around the shaken barrister. “That was the best answer you could have possibly given. This Court seem sos many pompous jerks who think that the name of the game is being the Supreme Lawyer; they hate it. Humility and knowledge. Humility and knowledge. That is the best way to do it. You were fabulous.” Turning to Gwen, “He was fabulous! Don’t you think?”

Gwen’s head was spinning, but she nodded enthusiastically anyway.

Oh gosh, there is so much gender going on here.


I feel like I have seen this movie before. Oh, right, it’s called Chariots of Fire. And, like, this is effectively a whole genre of Christian literature. In this genre, a character does the rigidly ethical thing even though it’s clearly a terrible idea—and then everything works out perfectly, and they both win/live/whatever and can pat themselves on the back for doing the rigidly ethical thing. It is this genre Farris is engaging in.

I’m going to leave off here for this week, but I do want to note that I got through the Supreme Court hearing in two posts. Impressive, no? Next week Peter will open Cindy’s mysterious packet of financial documents.

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