HIS NAME WAS GREEN. He lived in another county, and what he looked like remains something of a mystery. What was known was his address and his name and the fact, typed out on the teletype in the police station, that he owned a 1959 Ford Galaxie, four-door - a terrific car in its time.
He did not in fact own it. My father did. Nevertheless, I was charged with stealing it. In the police business, this is known as a mistake.
Later, of course, the police apologized. They came up to me and said they were sorry and even the one who slapped me, who hit me hard in the face when I leaned against a desk, said how sorry he was. There were six or seven of them, some uniformed and some not, and they were all very sorry. They could not have been sorry enough. They had me terrorized.
This comes to mind now because the Supreme Court composed of men who have probably not spent any time in jail except maybe visiting clients as lawyers, ruled recently that even eight days in the clink is not something you have to get upset about. The fact that the man who served eight days should not have - that it was a mistake - was regrettable and maybe worth an apology, but it was not, to use the vernacular, a federal case. This is a court that does not know the meaning of terror.
This has not been a good term for the Supreme Court of the United States, or, to put it more accurately, it has not been a good term for its citizens. The court went on something of a rampage. by the time it quit for the summer, it had punched holes through some pretty vital constitutional protections, among them freedom of the press and the public's right to open trials.
In addition, there was something about this term that was not tidy. The justices fell to criticizing one another; some of their decisions were leaked to the press in advance; and the chief justice of the United States, mistaking his office with that of chief usher, closed off parts of the building to the press, thus showing that he is not above being petty.
Much of what the Burger court accomplished came out of the hide of the press. It's hard to get people alarmed about that, even harder to get them to feel some sympathy for reporters. Lots of people hate the press, hate it for silly reasons and hate it for reasons that are not so silly - good reasons, in fact - but that, really, is not the point.
The point, instead, is that the press in its way represents the people. When we take it on the chin, so do you, and we really got our lumps this Supreme Court session. We now may have to say what was on our minds - what we were thinking when writing a story - when we get sued for libel. And we can be barred from pre-trial hearings as if we - meaning you - have no business being there - as if the business of the court is not the business of the people.
It's hard, too, to get people to feel sorry for members of Congress who now, after a recent Supreme Court ruling, can be sued for libel for what they say in their press releases. That decision went against Sen. William Proxmire, a senator who is something of a genius at getting publicity for himself. He sometimes holds people who spend public money up to scorn and ridicule, and that's not nice.
But it's also not personal and it's done for a reason and, more than that, it's done as part of the job of being senator. Now, though, a senator can be sued for doing his job, put into the position of first having to think of covering his flanks in a legal sense before pressing the button on the duplicating machine. This intimidates. Only the very rich have no fear of law suits.
Still, the public is not alarmed.Always the decisions seem to go against the heavies - institutions like the press and the government that can, in the end, take care of themselves anyway. But the one called Baker vs. McCollan is different. McCollan is not some big shot, but just a guy who spend eight days in the pokey by accident - because the cops arrested the wrong man. If he is like me, he was terrified - scared that the mistake would not be discovered and scared at what might happen next, maybe another shot in the mouth from some cop. What you feel after a while is tremendously lonely and impotent - all that and fear, too.
The Supreme Court says that that's all right. It says this sort of thing can go on for eight days without any rights being violated. It's hard to understand that. Maybe the justices don't know what it's like to be a journalist or a politician, but surely if they closed their eyes and squeezed tight they'd know what it's like to be frightened, to know that it makes no difference if you're in jail by accident or because the sheriff just don't like your looks. Either way, you feel the same.
You feel as if you have no rights.