A strong editorial in the Wall Street Journal today by SNR Denton lawyer Matthew Lifflander discusses the economic impacts of lying, with a particular emphasis on perjury in court. I’m sure that, like any ethical issue, we all have different views on the importance of telling the truth and what would constitute a just and deterrent punishment for perjury.
I vividly recall being on vacation in Rome with a politically conservative close friend when the Republicans were all in a lather over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I found it amusing that he was so indignant that our President would be caught blatantly red-handed lying about a blow job. On the other hand, what can we tell our children about the oath of perjury if our leader, our President, ignores it with impunity?
As the title of his piece suggests, Mr. Lifflander comes at the issue of perjury from an economic, cost-benefit (what benefit? and to whom?) analysis. It’s no surprise to any litigator that the practice of committing perjury is alive and well in our system, whether the liars are alleged criminals, greedy plaintiffs or callous corporations and their executives.
What I like about the piece, however, is not the shift from a purely ethical to a hard-line economic analysis of lying. Mr. Lifflander does offer some compelling statistics about the cost of dishonesty. For example, he cites that, “[i]n 2011 NY City paid $550 million in personal-injury and property-damage tort settlements and judgments . . . City lawyers have previously said that up to 10% of the claims . . . involve fraud or misrepresentation.” But, while compelling, these numbers don’t move me. I suspect this is because I’m still naive enough to believe one adheres to a policy of truth both (1) because any deviance from this policy threatens a reputation for honesty that I consider sacrosanct (I prefer not to do business with dishonest people), and (2) because it’s just the right thing to do.
Rather, what I like is that Mr. Lifflander offers suggestions on how to curb this rampant abuse. He endorses (1) creating a fund to pay for prosecution of perjurers (to be funded by small taxes on large personal injury judgments), (2) establishing a statutory civil tort to redress those who can prove they were victimized by perjury; and (3) a change to the law to authorize civil trial judges to punish perjurers through fines, sanctions or reductions in judgment.
I would throw out the first two suggestions. I abhor new “taxes” of any kind, and I’m not clear why successful personal injury litigants should be taxed to pay for prosecution of perjurers. If a tax is needed to raise the funds, it should be levied on everyone–not just successful litigants. Establishment of another tort is not the answer, either. Must new lawsuits be spawned off of the wrongs perpetrated during other lawsuits? Do we really need litigation-about-litigation, meta-litigation?
I do, however, endorse Mr. Lifflander’s third proposal: to make it easier for a trial judge to punish instances in which perjury has obviously occurred. There is nothing more frustrating that showing a judge clear and convincing evidence that a litigant has blatantly lied to the court, only to have it ignored. I remember my frustration during one evidentiary hearing in which I held up a real estate document in which it was obvious that the defendant had forged my client’s initials on an arbitration provision (obvious because, next to it, I had a version of the document obtained by subpoena that did not contain her initials), and the judge glossed over the issue. Are you kidding me? I thought. What kind of judge are(n’t) you?
The problem I see, though, is not that judges lack the authority to punish liars, but that many (most?) judges can’t be bothered to do it. The solution is probably not more legislation, but a change in the way judges–those in whom we place our trust to enforce the laws against perjury–view the crime. I doubt much will change on this front, however, until the public takes the crime of perjury and its consequences, ethical or economic, more seriously.