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 decision.
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) 772-1678.