The “Government” vs. Captain Justice? 
Posted: 14 November 2013 11:08 AM   [ Ignore ]
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This is only loosely language related, but it falls within the use of language writ large, I think, and it is too funny not to mention.

The often hilarious blog “Lowering the Bar” recently featured this story about a prosecuting attorney who filed a motion that sought to ban the defense attorney from referring to him as “the Government.” The prosecutor argued that the defense counsel was using the term in a derogatory way, and should be made to stop doing that.  The defense attorney noted that the motion should be denied because the prosecutor did not support it with any citation to any legal authority and that granting the motion would violate his First Amendment rights.  He then humiliated the prosecutor by pointing out the absurdity of the argument by insisting that the prosecutor should not be allowed to call him “the defense” as that has negative connotations (therefore, he should be referred to as “the Resistance"), and his client should be referred to as “that innocent man” not “the accused” (since the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty, which, by definition, has not yet occurred), and that if, as the prosecutor suggested, the prosecutor should be referred to as “General” So-and-So, then he should be referred to as “Captain Justice” (defense counsel had the good fortune of having the surname “Justice").

Quite hilarious, but I think there is a semi-interesting point here.  FWIW, I think it’s true that the phrase “the Government” has negative connotations in some circumstances, and it is not uncommon for defense counsel to play on those negative connotations to their advantage.  It is also true that facially neutral terms, like “the Government”, can be said with a certain sneer or intonation that makes them plainly derogatory, and, if a term is used with a certain sneer or intonation enough times, it can carry a derogatory tone even without a visible sneer or a distinct intonation.  But, none of that is a justifiable reason to forbid a defense attorney from using a facially neutral term like “the Government” in the course of defending a client.  As the defense counsel implies, many other terms, including the accused, the suspect, or even the defendant, have just the same sort of negative connotations (if not more so) and can be (and not uncommonly are) used by prosecutors for the same sort of rhetorical effect for which “the Government” is used by defense counsel.  And, certainly, “the defense” can be said, and not uncommonly is said, with a slightly disparaging intonation.

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Posted: 14 November 2013 11:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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FWIW, I think it’s true that the phrase “the Government” has negative connotations in some circumstances

Which is a somewhat sad reflection on the state of modern politics…

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Posted: 15 November 2013 04:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Rightpondians should bear in mind the distinction in usage. Government over here is not used in the sense of the party that is in power at any particular moment. It’s not the Obama government, but the Obama administration. The negative associations that the word government has are less a question of partisan politics and more that of the perception of public sector incompetence, mixed with a distrust of anyone in power.

(Old associations are hard to shake. When I said “here,” I meant in the United States. Here in Canada, government is indeed used in the sense of the party in power.)

[ Edited: 15 November 2013 04:27 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 15 November 2013 06:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Isn’t it more common (in the U.S.) to refer to the prosecution as “the People” or “the State”? Of course, my experience with criminal justice is based on books, tv, and movies, so what I know would fit in a thimble.

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Posted: 15 November 2013 09:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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PROSECUTORS would, I imagine, generally like to have their side be referred to as “the people” or “the state”.  Defense attorneys generally prefer to refer to them as “the government”.  In the official caption for the case, a variety of names can be used for the state/government, including “the People of the State of [X]”, or “State of [X]” or simply “State.” (In my own state, it is simply “State v. Outlaw” (or whatever).)

There is no rule (AFAIK) that requires a defense attorney to refer to the prosecution as “the state”, “the people”, or anything else when speaking to the jury or the judge, although any official written pleadings would have to be submitted using the correct caption.

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Posted: 15 November 2013 10:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Rightpondians should bear in mind the distinction in usage. Government over here is not used in the sense of the party that is in power at any particular moment. It’s not the Obama government, but the Obama administration.

Also, Goverment is singular here as a uncountable noun.

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Posted: 15 November 2013 07:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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donkeyhotay - 15 November 2013 06:37 AM

Isn’t it more common (in the U.S.) to refer to the prosecution as “the People” or “the State”? Of course, my experience with criminal justice is based on books, tv, and movies, so what I know would fit in a thimble.

IIRC, “The People v. X” is a term of art designating the criminal case at hand. Once it has gone to the appeals court does the name change? In any case it always seemed prejudicial to me in favor of the prosecution.

Cool link in the OP. It brought a much needed end-of-the-week laugh. Free speech is a wonderful thing. As a lawyer I know says frequently, these things have a way of working themselves out on their own, often with unintended consequences.

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Posted: 16 November 2013 04:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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IIRC, “The People v. X” is a term of art designating the criminal case at hand. Once it has gone to the appeals court does the name change? In any case it always seemed prejudicial to me in favor of the prosecution.

Perhaps a lawyer will correct me if I’m wrong, but the name of the case is determined by the name(s) on the filing. The prosecution/plaintiff’s name always goes first. If the prosecution calls themselves “The People of [State],” then that’s the name in the title. The names, and the order of names, can change on appeal. In a criminal prosecution, the order of names will usually change, as it’s usually the original defendant who files the appeal and becomes the new plaintiff (the situations in which the prosecution can appeal a case are limited). If when filing the appeal, the plaintiff calls the state something different, then that’s the name of the appellate case. I’m sure there are limits on what a plaintiff can use as names, mainly that they have to be accurate and identifying (e.g., no “Captain Justice").

I believe that in federal appeals cases just the name of the state, or “United States” if the original case is federal, is used without “people,” as in Miranda v. Arizona or United States v. Nixon.

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