What serious question for North Carolinians can there be in a new legal thriller novel written by a Virginia judge?
    This judge almost lives in North Carolina. His home in Virginia’s Patrick County is a few miles from Mt. Airy and Winston Salem. Judge Martin Clark has other North Carolina connections, including a Davidson College degree.
    The serious question in his new book, The Legal Limit, is not limited to Virginians or North Carolinians. Nor does it get in the way of the lively “page turner” story and vivid characters that Clark serves up to his readers.  
    First, a little bit about the story; then some thoughts about the serious question.{mosimage}
    In the story, we know from the beginning the crime and who committed it. The leading character, Mason Hunt, watches his brother Gates kill a man. Then he helps Gates cover up the crime. Gates is a ne’er-do-well who later winds up with a drug-related conviction and a 45-year prison sentence. On the other hand, Mason becomes the highly regarded district attorney in Patrick County.
    Many years later, based on the imprisoned Gates’s accusations, Mason becomes a suspect in the earlier crime and is indicted for murder.
    Mason uses all the tricks he knows, legal and ethical or not, to try to defeat the effort to connect him to the crime. He persuades others to breach their public responsibilities in order to help him. The author had this reader pulling for Mason to beat the charges against him.
    Mason’s willingness to “stretch the law”— to achieve some results that he judges to be more important than what the law demands — raises the serious question that underlies the book.
    For instance, in addition to his cover-up of his brother’s crime, Mason and his assistant DA rough up criminal defendants who they suspect are threatening Mason’s family. Then they lie about the facts when they swear out a warrant against their victims. The assistant DA delivers a colorful rationalization for their actions. “Justice ought to be a bottom-line proposition. …[I]t’s misguided when we worship musty old words in a text at the expense of innocent people’s suffering…. We should be concerned with how the soup tastes and not so damn worried about the particulars of the chef’s hat.”
    So, the question Martin Clark puts before us is this: How far do we expect our public officials to go beyond the rules we have set for them — when they are seeking a better result, a “better justice”?
    In a recent interview reported by the Jackson Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, Clark suggests that a judge cannot do the right thing if he always rigidly follows all the applicable law. In Virginia, Clark says, if a convicted felon is caught carrying a gun, there is a mandatory multi-year sentence. A 67-year-old man, convicted of the felony of moonshining about 40 years ago, was caught hunting deer with a black power rifle, a musket and brought before Judge Clark.
    “Do you want me to follow the law and put him in the penitentiary for two years or do you want me to make an exception?” Clark asks. His answer was to find the man guilty only of disorderly conduct and fine him $100.
    “…. [T]hat’s the sort of things judges face every day,” Clark says. “And I hope when people read (The Legal Limit), they will understand that everything is always not black and white, right or wrong.”
    It is hard to argue with Clark’s pragmatic approach to the old moonshiner. But that example should not persuade us to put aside those “musty old words” that bind public officials to follow the letter of the law.
    When does “stretching the law” to achieve a “good result” become breaking the law that must be punished? 
    The Legal Limit raises this serious question. It does not answer it.
    But it tells a great story. No question about that.
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