The Ultimate Malpractice: “Miracle on 34th Street”

We here at Abnormal Use are in the Christmas spirit, which gives us the urge to post about Christmas movies acting under the color of law.  Last week, I settled in with my long-suffering significant other to watch Miracle on 34th Street. Written and directed by George Seaton, and starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a young Natalie Wood, the 1947 film is ostensibly a Christmas classic, but really, it’s a cinematic exploration of some of the worst legal malpractice I’ve ever seen.

For those of you who have never seen it or just don’t remember the plot, let me break it down for you. The movie begins on Thanksgiving Day in New York City. The Macy’s parade is starting. Except the Macy’s Santa Claus is drunk. Why? As if this question needed an answer, it’s because New York is cold and Santa must stay warm! This is the most reasonable part of the movie.

That’s when “real” Santa (a/k/a Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn) elbows his way through the crowd, taking command of the Macy’s sleigh from Drunk Santa. Kringle is so adept at cracking his whip, looking jolly, and waiving like Queen Elizabeth that he parlays the gig into a full-time job at Macy’s, where he is immensely popular with parents and children alike. So far, so good. Except that Kringle insists that he is, in fact, Santa Claus.

He is not. Let me be clear about this. Miracle on 34th Street is not about some Christmas magic where Santa Claus comes to New York, spreads good cheer, and gets confused for having dementia. It’s about a good-natured elderly man with a love of Christmas who is correctly identified as having dementia. Think I’m kidding? Think again.

Fact No. 1: When Kringle goes to work at Macy’s, he’s asked to produce his employment card. His home is identified as “Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged,” in Long Island. Not exactly the winter wonderland of the Arctic Circle.

Fact No. 2: Kringle learns that he’s going to be subjected to a psychological evaluation by Macy’s in-house psychiatrist (played by Porter Hall). (Sidebar: Does your employer have a good benefits plan if they provide you with on-site psychiatrists, or does that mean you’ve picked the wrong place to work? Discuss among yourselves.) Kringle is not concerned. He knows that he can pass any psychological exam, because in his words, he’s taken dozens of them.

Fact No. 3: This is a subtle one. One of Kringle’s treating physicians from the Memorial Home shows up at Macy’s looking for the Claus. He is asked directly whether Kringle poses a threat to anyone. He responds that Kringle is not a threat, “just like the guy in Hollywood who owns a restaurant and pretends he’s a Russian prince.” I had no idea what this line meant. So I Googled it. Turns out that during the 1940s and 1950s, there was a restauranteur in Hollywood who insisted that he was the nephew of Tsar Nicholas II. This was false and everyone knew it. But the lie wasn’t causing anyone any harm, so it was all in good fun. Just like Kringle. So what if he thinks he’s Santa? It’s not hurting anyone.

Eventually Kringle and the Macy’s psychiatrist get into an argument, which results in Kringle taking his cane up-side the shrink’s head. The shrink gets mad, presumably because he just got beaten up by an old man, and decides to have Kringle committed. Which leads us to the commitment hearing, also known as the climax of the movie, taking place on Christmas Eve. In the Santa Claus industry, this is known as “BusinessTime.”

At this point, it is critical that we define the issue presented to the court. The issue is whether Kringle should be subject to involuntary psychiatric commitment due to the fact that he suffers from diminished competence, which presents a significant risk of physical harm either to himself or to others. It is also critical that we keep in mind the material facts which would be offered in support of the petition. First, the commitment proceedings were commenced by a psychiatrist who we can presume is licensed by the State of New York. Second, the psychiatrist was, in fact, assaulted by Kringle. This seems like it would be an open-and-shut case for the state.

Except that both attorneys are trying their best, it seems, to be as incompetent as possible. In fairness, the state’s attorney (played by Jerome Cowan) is deliberately trying to lose his case. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t want to be the guy responsible for locking Santa Claus up on Christmas Eve. So he does what every decent lawyer would try to do in the same situation: just enough to not get sanctioned, or lose his license or his job. In retrospect, he should’ve tried a little harder.

Bear in mind that for involuntary commitment, the state bears the burden of proof. And that the psychiatrist who started the commitment procedure is sitting at counsel table. This makes it all the more perplexing that the state’s only witness would be Kringle. Kringle, the defendant. Kringle, whose mental competency is at issue. Kris [expletive] Kringle. The state’s examination is equally perplexing. It consists of two questions. First, where do you live? The North Pole. Second, do you believe that you’re Santa Claus? Of course. And that’s it. No further questions.

This turns out to be the only evidence that the state offers in furtherance of the petition for commitment. The court received no testimony whatsoever from the very psychiatrist who swore out the need for commitment, even though he’s sitting in the courtroom. I’ll circle back up to this in a minute.

Let’s turn our focus back over to Kringle’s lawyer (played by John Payne). This guy kind of annoys me. At several points he refers to himself as the world’s greatest lawyer, and not in the charming, sarcastic, self-deprecating kind of way. He really means it. That Christmas, Santa should’ve asked for a better lawyer.

Let’s start out with the most glaring mistake / “legal strategy”: The state calls Santa to the stand. Kringle’s lawyer does not invoke the privilege against self-incriminating testimony. In fact, he waives it while boldly proclaiming, “We have nothing to hide!” Trust me, guy, you’ve always got something to hide. In your case, it’s the fact that your client assaulted the shrink. You might want to sweep that under the rug. Luckily, because the state phoned its performance in, Santa gets away unscathed.

But what if Kringle’s lawyer had asserted the Fifth Amendment? Santa doesn’t take the stand, which puts the state in the box of either calling no witnesses or calling the psychiatrist. If the state calls no witnesses, then Kringle can move for immediate dismissal. If the state calls the shrink, then Kringle can rebut him with Kringle’s own treating physician from the Memorial Home (who, as you recall, is in town). It becomes a battle of the experts, which gives the judge an avenue to do what he wants to do, which is deny the petition for commitment on the merits and move on with his holiday.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Once the state inexplicably rested its case after rigorously cross-examining Santa Claus, Kringle’s lawyer makes the opposite of a good decision: he chooses to not move for dismissal as a matter of law for the state’s failure to present evidence in support of its case. Why? Because Kringle’s lawyer has decided that he wants to keep trying the case until he’s ready to win. This is a tremendous tactical snafu, again, since the judge is begging for a quick way out of this case forever.

Kringle’s lawyer begins his case-in-chief. The first witness is none other than R.H. Macy himself (played by Harry Antrim). Macy testifies that he believes in Santa Claus. This prompts the state to pop out of his chair and object on the bases that the question is “Ridiculous, Irrelevant, and Immaterial.” This is  followed soon afterby the state’s ridiculous, irrelevant, and immaterial demand to the court to issue a legal ruling as to whether Santa Claus exists.

Kringle’s lawyer sees the state’s crazy and goes all in by calling his opponent’s five year old son. Without objection, the state’s lawyer allows his son to be cross-examined by “the world’s greatest lawyer” on whether he believes Santa exists. This results in the state conceding the existence of Santa Claus.

This doesn’t resolve the issue of whether Kringle is crazy, though. After all, the defense of the entire case has been that Kringle can’t be crazy if he is, in fact, Santa Claus. To prove this last element of his case, Kringle’s lawyer resorts to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and the doctrine of preclusion. Remember, this is the same guy who did not want to use the Constitution to keep his client from testifying. He’s now using the Constitution to make a very sophisticated argument that because the Postal Service will deliver Santa Claus’s mail to Kringle, the federal government believes that Kringle is Santa Claus, and therefore, that the State of New York must believe it, too.

And it works. Case dismissed. Kringle’s lawyer finally finds a way to give the judge a way to not commit Santa Claus to an institution, even if he picks the most complicated way to do it, and even if it required him to skip over easier procedural avenues. He still got a good outcome for his client. That is truly the Christmas miracle on 34th Street.

But now there’s a problem. Earlier I mentioned that the state’s lawyer was trying to do just enough to not get sanctioned or lose his license or his job. Now that the hearing’s over, Santa Claus can make life very tough for the state’s lawyer and Macy’s. After all, the state brought a commitment proceeding against Kringle, then offered almost no evidence in support of the petition. Furthermore, the state’s case was built upon the professional opinions of Macy’s psychiatrist, who lied about Santa’s mental evaluation just to have him committed. Santa may be full of goodwill and cheer, but come December 26, it would not be unreasonable for the Claus to file an action for abuse of process and malicious prosecution against his former employer and the State of New York.

Originally, I set out to detail why Santa should have lost his trial. Ultimately, I have concluded that the only folks who lost that trial were the fictional taxpayers, who funded the lawyering debacle, and myself.