Imagine the following situation: You’re a 76-year-old man, happily married for nearly 30 years, with three children and two grandchildren. You’ve recently retired after 50 years of teaching at Harvard Law School. You have an unblemished personal record, though your legal and political views are controversial. You wake up on the day before New Year’s Eve to learn that two lawyers have filed a legal document that, in passing, asserts that 15 years ago you had sex on numerous occasions and in numerous locations with an underage female.
The accusation doesn’t mention the alleged victim’s name—she’s referred to as Jane Doe #3, and the court document includes no affidavit by her. But her name doesn’t really matter, because you have never had sex with anyone other than your wife during the relevant time period. The accusations against you are totally false, and you can prove it.
Well, that is my situation: I’m the one who has been falsely accused. But let’s continue to imagine it was you:
Your first instinct is to call your lawyer and have him file a denial to the court in which the accusation was made. But your lawyer informs you that you can’t do that because you’re not a party to the lawsuit (against the United States government seeking to vacate the plea bargain your client struck seven years earlier) and have no standing to file any papers.
Not to worry, you imagine, because the lawyers who accused you of these heinous crimes will certainly have to prove them in court, which they will be unable to do, because they’re not true.
No, your lawyer tells you. They didn’t ask for a hearing or any other opportunity to prove the truth of what they alleged. So the accusation will remain on the public record without anyone having to prove it or you having any opportunity to disprove it.
Well, at least you can sue for defamation the two lawyers and the woman who made the false charges. No, you can’t, your lawyer tells you. They leveled the accusation in a court document, which protects them against the defamation lawsuit as a result of the so-called litigation privilege.
How did the accusation get from a court filing in an obscure courthouse in Florida to the first page of many newspapers and the first item on many television broadcasts? Obviously, it was leaked; who is going to be checking court filings the day before New Year’s Eve. But the mere leak of a publicly filed court document cannot lead to a legal claim, your lawyer tells you.
You can’t just let the false story spread without responding. Moreover, you have documentary proof that you could not have been in the places and at the time Jane Doe #3 said she had sex with you. Can you at least respond in the media? Not without some risk of being sued for defamation, your lawyer tells you.
You have no choice but to take that risk, so you make your denials and counteraccusations on live television. You challenge the two lawyers who filed the court document to repeat the false charges in the media, so you can sue them. They remain silent. You challenge the woman, now 31-years-old, to bring rape charges against you and you offer to waive any statute of limitations, because the filing of a false rape charge is itself a serious crime—though it is rarely prosecuted. She doesn’t accept your challenge.
And then, sure enough, the lawyers who made the false accusation— Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell —sue you for defaming them—though they claim you can’t sue them for falsely accusing you of a crime.
Welcome to the Kafkaesque world of American justice. But Kafka was writing fiction when he described the ordeal faced by Josef K in his famous novel, “The Trial.” What I have described is real. It is happening to me right now. And if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
I now stand accused of crimes I did not commit, by an unnamed woman who I don’t know and never met. I am also being sued for defaming my accusers. I still have no opportunity to respond in court to the false charges, though I am now seeking to intervene in the lawsuit in which the accusation was filed. I have submitted a sworn statement denying the accusations with great specificity. The court has not yet decided whether to accept my motion.
I feel like a victim of a drive-by shooting or the object of scribbled graffiti on the wall of a bathroom stall. I may never have the opportunity to prove my innocence, or to have my accusers prove the false charges, in any court of law. But because I am relatively well known—a double-edge sword in these situations—I can at least fight back in the court of public opinion, though at the very high cost—in legal fees, loss of insurance coverage and the possibility of a large monetary judgment against me.
Imagine the same thing happening to a person who did not have the resources to fight back.
There is a gaping hole in our legal system that allows lawyers to bring irrelevant accusations against innocent nonparties in court papers that insulate them from any consequences, and to deny the falsely accused any opportunity to respond.
The law must be changed to shatter this hall of mirrors I face and others might. There must be consequences for those who file accusations with no offer to prove them and no legal responsibility if they are categorically—and disprovably—false.
I will not rest until this gaping hole is filled with reasonable safeguards, so that what is happening to me can never happen to another innocent person.