February 12, 2012

Who wants us to wear wizard suits, and why?

A blog subscriber from Spain, Professor Antonio Andres Pueyo of the Universidad de Barcelona, asked me to play Snopes detective on some blogosphere buzz: Was legislation really introduced in New Mexico stating that psychologists and psychiatrists must wear wizard outfits when testifying as experts?

The story turns out to be true. Here’s the actual text:
When a psychologist or psychiatrist testifies during a defendant's competency hearing, the psychologist or psychiatrist shall wear a cone-shaped hat that is not less than two feet tall. The surface of the hat shall be imprinted with stars and lightning bolts. Additionally, the psychologist or psychiatrist shall be required to don a white beard that is not less than eighteen inches in length, and shall punctuate crucial elements of his testimony by stabbing the air with a wand. Whenever a psychologist or psychiatrist provides expert testimony regarding the defendant's competency, the bailiff shall dim the courtroom lights and administer two strikes to a Chinese gong.
The amendment was tacked onto a 1995 bill addressing licensing guidelines for psychiatrists and psychologists in the Land of Enchantment. Approved by a voice vote in the state senate, it fizzled out in the house of representatives.(1)

Although it was never enacted, its author likely owes his 15 minutes of fame to that single little dead-end amendment. It continues to be widely cited in articles and books; now, 17 years later, it has suddenly gained notice in the blogosphere, ping-ponging from Magraken’s BC Injury Law blog to Overlawyered to Mind Hacks, and many more.(2)

But Professor Pueyo's query about the veracity of the fated legislation sparked my curiosity. Why was it written? And why its lasting allure?

Is that all there is?

Yes, it's catchy and colorful. But what accounts for its remarkable staying power and ability to bounce back from the dead? (Can you tell I’ve been reading zombie novels? I just finished Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which I recommend to any of you zombie fans out there.)

The amendment's author, ex-state senator Duncan Scott, wrote it not just as a harmless prank. Satire is a powerful weapon, and the goal of the hard-core Republican, as he told Harper's Magazine at the time, was to highlight his disapproval of the use of insanity pleas in criminal trials. (Ironically, his language confuses insanity with incompetency, which as we all know is a different matter altogether.)

Just as panic over bogeyman sex offenders is all the rage today, a perceived rise in insanity verdicts was a hot-button topic in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of John Hinckley's insanity acquittal in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. The verdict triggered widespread public concern over the reliability of psychiatric testimony, and the U.S. Congress and half of the states changed their laws to limit or eliminate the insanity defense.

In reality, the popular concern was misplaced. Insanity is very rarely invoked as a defense, being used in less than one percent of cases, and it is successful even more rarely. And, contrary to public opinion, forensic psychologists and psychiatrists who evaluate a defendant's mental state are most likely to conclude that he or she does not meet the legal threshold for insanity.

So who continues to cite the wizard amendment in books and articles, and for what purpose?

Not surprisingly, the Scientologists -- haters of all things psychiatric -- were among the first to embrace it. A 1997 article in the Scientology front magazine USA Today (no relation to the newspaper), blaming psychiatry for "the breakdown of law and order," leads off with the amendment.

Other critics of psychiatry, including Thomas Szasz and Tana Dineen, jumped aboard the train, approvingly citing the wizard passage in their books. Even the authors of forensic how-to texts, such as Christopher Slobogin, Ralph Slovenko, and Robert Meyer and Christopher Weaver, took to citing the passage, as a cautionary message about forensic excesses and overconfidence in prediction.

Walter Olson, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
And then there's the resurrection of the wizard amendment in the blogosphere. No doubt, many posters are just enchanted by the guffaw factor. But it is no coincidence that its most prominent disseminator is Overlawyered. This blog (which claims to be "the oldest law blog") is the mouthpiece of Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank the Cato Institute; formerly, Olson was with the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank founded by former CIA director William Casey.

You have to give these people their props. They are pure geniuses when it comes to spinning the news to illustrate the supposed excesses of the civil trial system, as in the infamous case of the scalding McDonald's coffee. (For more on that, check out the new movie, Hot Coffee.) By exaggerating the costs and ignoring the benefits of the U.S. tort system, they aim to limit class action lawsuits and other methods for citizens to seek redress when they are injured by corporate greed and malfeasance.

And the wizard satire is brilliant in tapping into not only rancor toward the trial system, but also deep-seated cultural hostility toward the intelligentsia, the class resentments so deftly harnessed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party back in 2008.

As readers know, I am the last to defend arrogant forensic psychiatrists and psychologists; this blog is known for blowing the whistle on our field's excesses: The $500,000 competency report, the "boatloads" of cash earned by some government evaluators, the bogus psychiatric diagnoses being promulgated in sexually violent predator cases.

But, let's face it. By and large forensic evaluators are pawns, not chess masters. We are invited into the legal realm by attorneys and courts, and serve at their discretion. While a few of us may exhibit an arrogance meriting a wizard hat, by and large forensic practitioners are appropriately humble and honest, and make every effort to remain within the limits of our science.

So, while the wizard amendment may be humorous at first blush, the meaning behind the message turns out to be anything but funny.


(1) There are different versions of its progress through the legislature. Harper's Magazine, in a July 1995 report, said it was approved by the state senate but rejected by the house of representatives. Another popular scenario has it winning in both the senate and the house, the latter by a vote of 46-14, before being vetoed by the governor. The amendment's author, Duncan Scott, gave a different account to blogger Erik Magraken, saying the language was removed before the bill even reached the house. The online records of the New Mexico Legislature only go back as far as 1996, but if anyone wants to dig back through the paper records, the citation is: Senate Floor Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 459 (Richard Romero), 42nd Leg., 1st Session (New Mexico 1995). 

(2) My favorite blog post on the wizard amendment is by Tom Freeland, a Mississippi lawyer, who said the provision reminded him of one tacked onto a "victim’s rights" bill being pushed through the Mississippi senate, which would have granted victims the right to sit at the counsel table in a criminal trial. A Mississippi senator, Hob Bryan, "annoyed proponents by moving that the provision be waived in murder cases," Freeland reported.


Anonymous said...

What makes the Manhattan Institute "infamous" as you say?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

I guess infamy is in the eye of the beholder; perhaps it's not well known enough to be infamous? Based on your questioning of the word, I've removed it. But despite its somewhat low profile, the Institute has been quite influential in pushing the neoconservative agenda, especially under the George W. Bush presidency. For example, David Frum left the Manhattan Institute to become a speechwriter for Bush, coining the term 'axis of evil' that became a central propaganda device justifying Bush's (infamous) "war on terrorism."

Jay Markowitz said...

Oy vey. Where to begin...

I just love how you mention Walter Olson and "Overlawyered" with smug disdain, but obviously have never actually been to the site, nor bothered to read any posts there. Walter frankly and honestly writes about issues concerning overreach and abuse of the courts and legal system that you childishly label 'spinning.' Walter is also able to back up his opinions with facts and logic when challenged, something that you are seemingly incapable of, as all it would take is a quick click on the 'About' link to read that "Overlawyered" is "regularly described as the oldest law blog; at least, no one seems to be able to name one that’s older." In the comments above, you snicker pompously at what you determine as the 'low profile' of the Manhattan Institute, equating worth with popularity. Ironic as 'Overlawyered' is a very popular website and your blog is not. Who is being hostile against 'intelligentsia' again?

And the way you imply everyone who works for the Cato Institute must be against you by describing them as 'these people?' Poppycock. Ever go to Cato's site and read an article? I feel confident in saying that you have not. You should take a few minutes as you might find something that you agree with (the horror!) Also, you disingenuously use the words 'supposed excesses of the court system' but then contradict yourself later in the same post with the statement that you are "the last to defend arrogant forensic psychiatrists and psychologists; this blog is known for blowing the whistle on our field's excesses." The falsehoods, generalizations, and poor logic that you have conjured up in this one post shows that the 'cone-shaped hat that is not less than two feet tall... imprinted with stars and lightning bolts' imagery IS a falsehood, as your cone-shaped hat should simply have the word 'Dunce' printed in large font across the front.

By the way, I am no Republican, conservative, rightwinger, or libertarian, nor am I a Democrat, liberal, or leftwing. I am an American who is completely sick of your type of divisiveness and lack of fortitude.