With those lawyers, it would take a Christmas Miracle…
Last Sunday, the kids and I went to the Thalian
Association’s production of "Miracle on 34th Street"
a musical adapted from the 1947 movie starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn,
and a very young Natalie Wood. My theater review: Wonderful entertainment, terrific cast, and
catchy songs, with a kind of rare “Christmas Special” vibe that you used to get
from holiday TV shows and movies before you could get any video you thought of
on DVD, Netflix or YouTube. Take a few kids and enjoy the show in a lovely old
theater in downtown Wilmington. The final run is December 13-16 and tickets are going fast.
As a theater goer and sometime amateur actor, I loved the
show. As an attorney I found some of
the legal strategy employed by the attorney for Santa Claus, and his opponent,
while entertaining, somewhat questionable.
Spoilers below (If
that is possible from a story almost 70 years old).
A dignified older gentlemen is indignant to find that the
person assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is drunk.
When he complains to event director Doris Walker she persuades the man, who
says his name is Kris Kringle, to take his place. He does such a fine job that
he is hired to be the Santa for Macy's flagship New York City store on 34th
Street. Gradually, the employees of Macy’s come to the realization that Mr.
Kringle believes he is, in fact, the real Santa Claus.
Pursuant to Macy’s policy, a Mr. Sawyer gives Kris a "psychological
evaluation". Kris seems to pass the test but antagonizes Sawyer by questioning Sawyer's own psychological health while insisting he is the one,
the only, Santa Claus. Sawyer then has Kris committed. In his first case, an
ex-Marine, Fred Gailey, agrees to defend Mr. Kringle in a hearing before Judge
Henry X. Harper of the New York Supreme Court in the commitment hearing.
At the hearing, District Attorney Thomas Mara gets Kris to
assert that he is in fact Santa Claus and rests his case, believing he has prima facie
proven his point. Fred stuns the court by arguing that Kris is not insane
because he actually is Santa Claus – and Fred will prove it. Based on
testimony of R.H. Macy (and a nice song and dance number) the court recognizes
the existence of Santa Claus. The DA then demands that Mr. Gailey prove that
Mr. Kringle is Santa Claus. Mr. Gailey asserts and the DA stipulates that the U.S. Post Office is competent and efficient authority for determining the identify
of a person. With that, bags of letters addressed to Kris Kringle as Santa
Claus swamp the court. Declining to dispute the Post Office's "legal
recognition" of Kris as Santa Claus, Harper dismisses the case.
First, keep in mind that Sawyer is trying to get Kris into
inpatient, involuntary commitment. That is not, and shouldn’t be, an easy task
as there are huge civil rights issues involved in restraining somebody against
their will. Therefore the statutes and the law are specific and narrowly
tailored. Second, Let’s assume that the statutes for involuntary commitment in
New York in 1947 are the same as North Carolina in 2012.
Under such a law, In order for Mr. Sawyer to have Kris initially involuntarily committed, he
would have to sign an affidavit (statement under oath to a notary) that Kris
was mentally ill or dangerous to himself or dangerous to others. When a person
swears out such an affidavit, and a clerk or magistrate finds probable cause to
believe it is the truth, they can issue an order for involuntary commitment.
The law enforcement officer would then take the alleged incompetent into
custody and provide him an examination by a physician or psychologist without
unnecessary delay. Since Mr. Sawyer was apparently a licensed psychologist, he appeared
to skip this step. Then, within 10 days of the person being taken into custody
(or about 2 scenes later in theater time), the hearing before a district court
judge is required. To support an order for involuntary, inpatient commitment,
the judge must find by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the person
is mentally ill and dangerous to himself or others. The judge is also required
to record his findings of fact in the order, giving a justification for his
In “Miracle,” the DA, apparently phoning it in with an “open
and shut” case right before Christmas, calls the wrong witness. Instead of
calling Mr. Sawyer to testify that Kris is mentally ill and dangerous to
himself or others, he calls Kris.
District Attorney: What is your name?
Kris Kringle: Kris Kringle.
District Attorney: Where do you live?
Kris Kringle: That's what this hearing will decide.
Judge Martin Group: A very sound answer, Mister Kringle.
District Attorney: Do you really believe that you're Santa Claus?
Kris Kringle: Of course.
District Attorney: [long pause] The state rests, your honor.
Now, without any psychiatric testimony or even documented
medical records, I don’t see how it’s possible Judge Group could find findings
of fact to support that Kris was mentally ill and dangerous to himself or
others. So, because of the screw-up of the District Attorney, all Gailey has to
do is ask the court to dismiss the case and they can skip right to the curtain
call, but Gailey keeps going. There is a temptation in all trials to keep trying
the case, keep talking, and to be too clever, and it often backfires. If he
wanted to keep arguing, or if the DA had the sense to put Sawyer on the stand,
Gailey could have called Kris’s psychiatrist from the Brooks Memorial Home for
the Aged (who was sitting back in the chorus) during the hearing. The doctor had
appeared in an earlier scene and specifically said Kris “may be delusional, but
it's a delusion for good.” I think it can be implied from that dialogue that
the doctor would not find Kris dangerous to himself or others, and the judge
would find more weight with a doctor who had been treating Kris than some quack
who worked for a department store and gave the guy some form test.
But Gailey decides to play on hard mode. Rather than win the
case he has, he decides he wants to prove that Kris is sane by proving that he
is actually the one and only Santa Claus, despite the fact that is not the
question before the court and is not what he needs to prove to win for his
client. He even shifts the burden of proof. Rather than the DA having to prove
Kris is mentally ill and dangerous to himself or others, Gailey accepts that he
has to prove that his client is Santa Claus. Even if it is true, it’s a lot
harder to prove, even if Jingle and Jangle Bells come into court to testify. Luckily for
Gailey, he stumbles on to the Post Office defense and Judge Group (relived he
didn’t have to rule against Santa with an election coming up) quickly rules for
Kris before his attorney can start talking again.
So we get a happy ending and looking back, I suppose I am
guilty in this blog post of doing what Gailey did. Maybe what Gailey was really
trying to do was help Kris give everybody the Christmas spirit. What he did and
what the production of “Miracle on 34th Street” had to do was to entertain
a packed house of people, not prove a legal point. And in that, they succeeded brilliantly.
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC with
Hodges & Coxe PC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical
Malpractice, Homeowner's Associations, Contract and Real Estate disputes
and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910)