Back when I ran a legal services office in Wichita Falls, Texas, I interviewed an applicant for a secretary position. She asked if we handled criminal cases, and I told her that, as a rule, we only did civil work, but our attorneys were sometimes appointed by local judges to represent people charged with crimes. (There weren’t enough attorneys in Wichita Falls who wanted to do court-appointed defense, so everyone in the local bar took a turn out of duty.)
“I just don’t see,” the applicant told me, “how you can defend those people.”
She didn’t get the job. Like most people working in legal services — indeed, like most lawyers — I believe even heinous criminals deserve representation. Sometimes they’re not as heinous as they seem — many are just stupid — and occasionally they’re even innocent. But it’s not the potential innocence that makes me think this way: One of the virtues of the U.S. legal system is that you don’t bring down the whole weight of the law on people without due process of law, which means competent representation.
James Simon Kunen wrote a book about it, though, sadly, it’s out of print. How Can You Defend Those People? chronicles his experience as a public defender in Washington, D.C. I even think the likes of Bernie Madoff deserve representation, though I’m glad it wasn’t my job to do it.
But a little while ago, I was reading an article and found myself saying, “How can you defend those people?”
“Those people” are spammers.
According to Salon, there’s a lawyer in San Francisco who makes his living suing people who send him spam. His name is Dan Balsam and he has 42 small claims judgments against spammers, plus settlements. According to Salon, he’s made about $1 million out of judgments and settlements.
From what I read, it sounds like he mostly just sues the people who send him spam. He’s not representing other people; he’s making money by getting judgments for himself under California law, which is stronger than most. A judge mentioned in the article noted that Balsam isn’t the average consumer: apparently he has over 100 e-mail addresses. He’s sitting there daring people to spam him, so he can sue.
And of course — as anyone with an email address can tell you — the spammers oblige. Spamming wouldn’t be profitable if someone had to go through all the email addresses and pull out the ones that might cause some trouble.
Now I don’t know if Balsam’s efforts will do anything much about spam, but even if all he succeeds in doing is annoying the spammers, I’m on his side all the way. A few years back I got so mad about junk faxes — which were prohibited, but ubiquitous — I thought about suing the senders in small claims court. The law was on my side and the damages would quickly mount up.
But it does take work. You have to track down the people who are sending these things. In the case of faxes, about all you can get is an 800 number, and I’m sure no one at that number will give you the address and corporate name and other things you need to file suit. It requires detective work, and in the end, I was just too lazy to do it. Balsam was willing to figure out how to track these people down. Bully for him.
There are people who don’t like Balsam, though: attorneys who represent spammers. In the Salon article, one of those lawyers accused him of abusing the process — apparently because he uses small claims court. Other lawyers accused him of viewing anyone who disagrees with him as “villainous,” as if there were something wrong with viewing spammers as useless sponges who make money out of wasting the time and money of everyone else.
And that was the point where I found myself saying, “How can you defend those people?”
It wasn’t so much that these lawyers represented the spammers in court; it was that they self-righteously attacked Balsam for filing the suits in the first place.
I mean, if you’re going to represent spammers, can’t you at least have the decency to be embarrassed about it?
My story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.
My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.