Saturday, September 9, 2017

Law, Star Trek Lawyers, & How We Envision the Future

     Legal precedent has a temporal aspect that makes it inherently both historical and prospective. In the latter sense, while stare decisis relies on the past, it is also an attempt to establish principles that will serve as a future guide.  In this blog, I talk about the connection between law and the future, particularly in light of the recent celebration of Star Trek day on September 8th, as portrayed in a couple of well-known episodes from the show.  

     The program’s treatment of legal issues has attracted scholarly attention in the past, see a 1993 paywalled article here, also described in this press report.  Star Trek provided some great examples of how Gene Rodenberry’s imagined future would still be dealing with basic legal issues.  In celebration of 51 years since the debut of the original series in 1966, the American Bar Association (ABA) also highlighted the connection in this recent humourous post:


     One of the best law episodes in the original series was Court Martial, in season 1.  The story involved an alleged dereliction of duty by Captain Kirk, threatening his Starfleet career.   This episode anticipated numerous legal issues, like the advent of electronic resources, as pointed out in this 2012 blog by Legal Geeks, see here.
     For example, remember all the recent talk about the rise of the robot lawyer?  In fact, Star Trek dealt with the early implications of artificial intelligences more than half a century ago.  In Court Martial, the reliance on computers was significant theme in the plot, where the Enterprise’s captain faced certain conviction on the basis of seemingly incontrovertible electronic evidence.
     The script is also a case study in models of lawyering, and contrasting legal styles.  A highlight is the curmudgeonly character of Samuel P. Cogley played by the late great Elisha Cook Jr.  Though the director was apparently frustrated by Cook’s delivery, the Cogley lawyer has some of the most memorable lines, below, and also seen in this clip:
     “Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn't so important, I'd show you something. My library. Thousands of books…. This is where the law is. Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer. Do you want to know the law? The ancient concepts in their own language? Learn the intent of the  men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha III? Books.”

     Cook’s character contrasted with that of Lt. Areel Shaw, a senior Starfleet lawyer (pictured in the ABA tweet above). Consistent with the show’s conceit, that Kirk was a 'ladies man', Shaw was a former paramour of the Enterprise Captain.  But that didn’t stop her from bringing him, by the last act, to the brink of a military conviction.
   Most remember that Star Trek had the first televised interracial kiss (on American TV at least), between the characters of Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura, see the clip here. The Court Martial episode was similarly ground-breaking.

     At the time less than 3 percent of attorneys in the United States were women.  By comparison, a woman would not be appointed as a federal prosecutor until the late 1970’s in Canada, see here.  The appearance of a woman in a position of authority, as a senior JAG lawyer, who comes close to victory, was consequently a daring bit of television for the time.

      The tradition of great Star Trek law episodes continued in the Next Generation with the season 2 episode Measure of a Man. The episode dealt with whether the android character Data had rights.  Its examination of issues both harkened back to the slavery debates provoked by the infamous American Dred Scott decision, and highlighted a growing appreciation in modern times of animal ethics, see e.g. here.  A very good blog about the episode, again by Legal Geeks, is here.

      One of my favourite footnotes to the ‘Data on Trial’ storyline is that it was written by then practicing attorney Melinda Snodgrass.  When her unsolicited script was accepted, she quit her lawyer job and for a time became the executive story consultant for the show.  She is now an accomplished writer, who has recently also collaborated with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.
     There are plenty of other places in the greater Star Trek universe where law and justice have featured prominently as a plot device, see here.    Ultimately, the future orientation of science fiction often makes it a good vehicle for addressing basic legal questions, as others have observed, see e.g. here and here.  (On a Canadian note, Ontario Western University’s law professor Randal Graham has recently published his own creative foray into the genre, see here.) 

      I’ve previously written about the importance of history to legal culture in Canada, see here and here. As I suggested at the start of this blog though, law and the role of precedent are also closely connected to the ways in which we envision the future.  The links to Star Trek highlighted here, but also to science fiction more generally, are built on this connection.  Law is rooted in history, but it looks forward too, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that justice features so prominently in these speculative works.  Hope everyone had a happy #StarTrekDay

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