With all due respect to Alanis Morissette, the legal system may not be quite like a person who overcomes a fear of flying—only to have his plane crash, or even like a person who purchases the winning lottery ticket—only to die the next day. But lawyers and those involved with the law nevertheless witness more than their fair share of moments that are utterly dripping with delicious irony.
Take, for example, James Miller of Oxford, Ohio. In October 2009, the then-18-year-old college student figured he’d come up with the best Halloween costume on campus: a giant Breathalyzer device (complete with a strategically placed plastic tube with the instructions “Blow Here”). But Halloween parties being what they are, young Miller overindulged and was spotted driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The policeman who stopped him administered a real Breathalyzer test to the giant faux Breathalyzer, and recorded Miller’s blood alcohol level as 0.158, or nearly twice the legal limit. He was charged with DUI and underage drinking, but not before his wonderfully ironic mugshot in costume—a giant “Breathalyzer” busted for DUI—went viral.
And for those fond of asking “Who watches the watchers?”, nothing could be more ironic than a government agency charged with punishing discrimination, committing discriminatory acts within its very walls. For example, in March 2010, the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division lost an employment discrimination federal lawsuit brought by Johnny Kimble, one of its former supervisors. Kimble, an African-American official at the Equal Rights Division’s Milwaukee office for 33 years, sued after being repeatedly denied raises because of his race and gender. Federal Judge Lynn Adelman ruled in Kimble’s favor, finding that the former administrator of the Equal Rights Division had discriminated against Kimble for years.
And in March 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made what would at first glance seem to be a routine announcement of a six-figure settlement with an employer found to have engaged in discrimination against the disabled. But the announcement of a $100,000 settlement with ValleyLife was out of the ordinary, primarily because of what ValleyLife does: It provides disability support services! The $100,000 consent decree, entered into in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, required ValleyLife not only to pay four disabled former employees who had been discriminated against, but also to revise its policies to require reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. I sure hope the irony isn’t lost on ValleyLife.
Of course, nothing is quite as enjoyable on a karmic level as seeing those who counsel others to “do as I say, not as I do” get their comeuppance. In 2017, the career of Manhattan tax attorney Harold Levine came to a crashing halt when he was sentenced in federal court to 24 months in prison for—wait for it—tax evasion. Apparently, Levine (who was the former head of the tax department of a major New York firm) had engaged in a “scheme to siphon millions of dollars of tax shelter fee income from the law firm” and had failed to report the diverted fees as income.
And if a tax lawyer going to jail for tax evasion isn’t ironic enough for you, how about the former tax court judge who wound up in prison for the same offense? In June 2017, former Minnesota Tax Court Chief Judge Diane Kroupa (who also served as a federal judge on the U.S. Tax Court before retiring in June 2014) pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Among other things, Kroupa and her husband deducted numerous personal expenses (like jewelry, spa and massage sessions, music lessons, Pilates classes, and travel to exotic locations) as “business expenses” for a consulting firm they created. Kroupa was sentenced to 34 months, which should give her plenty of time to reflect on the irony of her situation.
And finally, who better than the government to provide us with the greatest of ironies: promoting transparency in government but doing so behind closed doors? In March 2011, the Obama administration proclaimed “Sunshine Week” in celebration of efforts to make government more transparent. In fact, President Barack Obama was honored with an award from OMB Watch and the Project on Government Oversight, who hailed his administration for such measures as publicly disclosing White House visitor logs and posting more government information online. Unfortunately, the ceremony accepting the award took place behind closed doors, with no photos or transcript released, and no official White House statement.
As if that isn’t enough “theater of the absurd” for you, how about Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed a new bill in April promoting prison transparency. You guessed it—he signed it in secret, contrary to the wishes of lawmakers who had passed the bill and the transparency advocates who had fought for it.
Ah, Irony, what would we do without you?
John G. Browning is a shareholder at Passman & Jones in Dallas, where he handles a variety of civil litigation in state and federal courts.