Maestro Keys — Chapter 37
Usually when a case of consequence was resolved in BK&S’s favor the winners were fèted with champagne and brie. Not so after the Williams case settled. Either the landlord-tenant section was too small to lavish a ten-dollar bottle of Brut upon, or the case wasn’t considered a victory (since it was a recovery of money already owed), or Shipler didn’t want to party with people he was about to fire. Or all three.
“So this mean we ain’t gettin’ terminated, right?” Darlene sought Arnold’s assurance.
“Don’t stop looking for another job just yet. Now that the case is resolved they may not have any more use for us.”
“I thought you said that money gonna pay our salaries.”
“I did. But you know Shipler. You can’t hold him to something he said months ago. Besides, he never gave us an ironclad commitment.”
Darlene stared at him balefully. “Hard to find a job. Economy’s bad.”
“And it’s not likely to get better,” he commiserated.
“I tried lots of places. Nobody hiring ‘cept Amazon and Walmart. I ain’t gonna work in a place like that. They get treated worse than the secretaries here.”
Arnold steered the conversation toward more general (and safer) ground. “What I wonder is whether anyone is happy in their work. Besides successful artists and the wealthy.”
“Only people who got nothin’ better to do with their lives.” Her eyes suddenly widened with excitement. “That’s what I should do. Get me a hip hop group together, do a few gigs, pop out a single.” She bobbed her head and snapped her fingers to an imaginary rhythm. “You buy my single, Arnold?”
“Only if you autograph the CD.”
“Okay, I’ll make a CD just for you,” she laughed, and headed back to her cubicle.
Arnold sighed. After they’d crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s of the Williams settlement Matt Donalson observed that the only time black people got a break was when they served white interests. That was why Elliebeth received so much sympathetic attention when she wanted her house back, but so little when she wanted to save it from a well-connected law firm.
Something about Matt’s comment seemed wrong. Only now did he realize what. Black people weren’t the only ones who never got a break. White people who didn’t serve white interests never got breaks either. That’s what made all those Trump voters so mad — they realized no one cared about them. They diagnosed the problem correctly. They just prescribed the wrong cure.
His intercom buzzed. It was Darlene. That’s probably why she’d left his office: she’d heard the phone ring. He hadn’t heard it at all. “Some professor on line two for you,” she said.
Maybe an acquaintance of Nesta curious why he hadn’t seen the dreadlocked talker for a while? He picked up line two.
“Yes, hello Mister Keys. My name is Peabody McMeel. I’m affiliated with Stanford Law School.”
Affiliated. Probably an adjunct or lecturer in his specialty. “What can I do for you, Mr. McMeel?”
“Some weeks ago I met a client of yours, a Mister Cormick Albera.”
So Albera had consulted another attorney! The backstabbing jackass. “And?”
“And I believe I can help you win his case.”
“Oh? Do you have some favorable facts for me?”
“Better. I have centuries of established legal theory.”
Oh brother, thought Arnold. He envisioned McMeel as an elderly pedant decked in tweed coat, ascot, and pince-nez. “All right. Please explain.”
“At first I viewed Mister Albera’s case from a conventional standpoint and considered it hopeless, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to see how far the judiciary can be pushed on the Uniform Housing Code. Tell me, Mister Keys, are you a homeowner?”
“Yes.” He didn’t add that he wasn’t sure how much longer.
“If I sent someone from your city’s building inspections bureau through your home, do you think they’d find zero violations? Or even if they were to find zero violations, do you think they would find that all the work on your home, not only under your ownership but under previous owners, was properly permitted?”
Arnold thought back to the bathroom remodel he and Linda did after he settled in at BK&S. The contractor promised to do everything to code, but advised that if he had to pull a permit from the city he’d have to upgrade so much other stuff the project would cost twenty thousand dollars more and take two more months. “No,” he conceded.
“I venture to say your experience is nearly universal. Does that mean every homeowner is a criminal?”
“Mister McMeel, the Uniform Housing Code is quite specific about the necessity of heat, and unfortunately the weight of evidence suggests the heaters Mister Albera installed in that building could not meet the minimum standard. That’s a very real liability.”
“But you agree with me that it shouldn’t be?”
Arnold sputtered. “Well — ”
“Elemental contract law, Mister Keys. When a landlord and tenant sign a lease, they both receive a consideration. The landlord receives rent, the tenant receives a roof over his head.”
“Subject to minimum standards established by the state.”
“Why should the state be involved?”
“It has an interest — ”
“The state has no interest. It’s a private transaction. Why shouldn’t a landlord be able to tell prospective tenants that the place is theirs, but they’ll need to wear a heavy sweater through the winter? The prospective tenants are free to choose whether to accept or reject the landlord’s offer.
“You see Mister Keys, this is not only why rents are so high, it’s why we have a housing shortage and so many homeless people. The state, through the Uniform Housing Code, makes the cost of building and maintaining housing prohibitive. If we eliminate the UHC and create a truly free market in housing, we’ll have housing for everyone in no time, at no taxpayer expense. Plus you won’t have to live in fear of a city inspector walking through your home.”
“Mister McMeel, that is an intriguing theory. But I have to deal with the law as it is, not as we might like it to be — ”
“And I’m offering you the opportunity to remake the law.”
“Maybe, but maybe not. You have to remember this will be a jury trial. An Alameda County jury trial.”
“I think it’s actually advantageous to start in a hostile venue. The appellate court will be more likely to overturn. You know how the appeals courts love to overturn Alameda County.”
Arnold didn’t think that was true, but let it go. “So you’re saying you want my client to make this theoretical defense, which basically concedes that he’s in the wrong under existing law, so that he loses his case, hoping he’ll win on appeal years down the road? He’s been struggling to survive on a twenty-five percent cut in income. How can you ask him to continue like that? I mean, what if he loses on appeal? Then what happens to him?”
“Well,” McMeel tittered in amused condescension, “it sounds like you’re seeing more obstacles than opportunities, thinking too conventionally to make new law — and history. Too bad. Elections matter, Mister Keys. We’re living in auspicious times juridically speaking. They’re likely to be quite hospitable to property rights lawyers with boldness of vision.” He sighed. “But no worries. We can find another lead counsel if necessary.”
Now hold on, Arnold wanted to say, but bit his tongue and did a flash analysis. On the one hand this might be the rescue the BK&S landlord-tenant section needed. It might be enough to afford him a real legal secretary, perhaps even an associate to do his scutwork. And as skeptical as Arnold was, this probably did comprise his best chance to make history. The conducting thing was pure fantasy.
On the other hand it felt wrong. Or maybe not so much wrong as dirty. Arnold appreciated property rights, but he wasn’t an absolutist about them, and the Invisible Hand struck him as just another deity that either didn’t exist or wasn’t all its followers cracked it up to be. There were good reasons for government regulation, heavy-handed and excessive as that regulation often was. Maybe he was going soft, but it seemed to him that renters should be able to take for granted certain basics like hot and cold running water, a toilet and sink, a roof that didn’t leak — and heat.
So what this really boiled down to was how selfish he wanted to be. Was he willing to lose a case and aggravate his client’s financial woes for some libertarian ideologue’s vision of the greater good and his own personal gain?
“Tell you what,” he proposed. “Let’s give Mister Albera the option. We’ll each explain how we want to proceed. If he goes with me, you butt out of this case forever. If he goes with you, I’ll offer to substitute out so you can hire someone more to your liking.”
McMeel mulled it over. “Acceptable.”
Arnold was thoroughly depressed when he hung up. But after brooding for five minutes he brightened: one way or another the Albera case would be over soon and he’d be free to hire Matt Donalson as Rudy’s civil attorney. He hadn’t brought a shred of strategy to that call, yet it couldn’t have gone better.
Once he worked out his pitch he got hold of Albera. He dutifully recounted the facts of the case, enumerating the risks Albera ran if he proceeded in the manner McMeel intended and reiterating his recommendation that the litigation be settled. Arnold hadn’t quite finished when Albera said, “I’ve already talked to the professor. He thinks I can win. And he’s got some think tank behind him that’s willing to pay my legal fees. That’s a better deal than you ever gave me. Truth be told, I never thought you were that good a lawyer. So sayonara.”
Arnold managed not to sound insulted. “I’ll draft a substitution of attorney form. I’ll leave it with the receptionist and you can come in and sign it in the morning.”
“Good luck, Cormick.”
You’ll need it, sucker! he wanted to add. But he was clicking today. Again he all but accidentally thought of something better. Should he say it? He’d been thinking it for months. Ah, what the hell, the sleazeball was history.
“Keep a stiff upper lip.”
© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.