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Wonder Woman Podcast

Jessica and I loved Wonder Woman. We sat down to discuss the new film, memories of the 1970s TV series, and the legal issues with compelling someone to incriminate themselves. We touch on the causes of World War I, war crimes, and a host of other topics in our review of Wonder Woman.

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Illusive Comics

Jack Yang and I both shop at Illusive Comics. We joined the owner Anna, and her great team, in celebrating their 10th Anniversary. We recorded a special podcast where we discussed how Illusive is a community for geeks, thoughts on recent comics, and the privacy issues with Mantis disclosing Star-Lord’s feelings for Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. And yes, we had cake.

Wonder Woman, Seventies Style!

The final countdown is on until I finally get to see the Wonder Woman movie Friday night and these last few days are going far too slow. To help me make it through, I’ve decided to watch the show that made me fall in love with Wonder Woman in the first place: Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman TV show.

I don’t remember much from the show (besides that spin) but it created a lifelong obsession. Thanks to that show and the iconic superhero that is Wonder Woman, I now have Wonder Woman comics, tee shirts, toys, mugs, action figures, garbage cans, and lunch boxes (“winning” that lunch box on eBay taught me to never again mix wine and bidding). And I’ve been waiting for a Wonder Woman movie for decades. I’m really excited that Patty Jenkins directed this movie although I hoped for years that the Joss Whedon/Lauren Graham version would happen.

Watching a TV show from the ’70s is fun for a lot of reasons. First, the cheesiness of these old sitcoms is amazing. Second, you get to play “I know that person.” I didn’t know that Cloris Leachman played Queen Hippolyta! And I was shocked to see Henry Gibson of Laugh In fame show up as an Allied spy. Even Anne Ramsey (Mama Fratelli from The Goonies) showed up as a cab driver! Third, it’s nice to see a show from the days when we all agreed that Nazis and fascism were evil. The only depressing part of watching the first episode is that Wonder Woman’s girl power statements are as important, relevant, and disputed today as they were forty years ago.

Wonder Woman’s lasso is also pretty awesome. I’ve often said that Wonder Woman and her fight for truth and justice represents the good side of the legal system (while Darth Vader represents the Dark Side). In particular, her lasso, with its ability to get anyone to tell the truth, would obviously be hugely useful during depositions or in court.

There are two major constitutional issues with using her lasso, however, to coerce a confession that would not otherwise be given. First, the use of the lasso on an unwilling witness or party to get them to confess would violate the Fifth Amendment‘s protection against self-incrimination. The Constitution’s Due Process Clause (of the 14th Amendment) also requires that a confession be voluntarily given — the defendant’s will must not be “overborne by the circumstances surrounding the giving of a confession.” Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 434 (2000). Under the Due Process clause, if the confession is “not the product of a rational intellect and free will, the confession was coerced and is inadmissible.” Id. As the Supreme Court has noted, both the American and English legal systems have long believed that a voluntary confession is credible while an involuntary confession should be rejected. In support of this position, the Court quoted an English opinion from 1783: “A free and voluntary confession is deserving of the highest credit, because it is presumed to flow from the strongest sense of guilt … but a confession forced from the mind by the flattery of hope, or by the torture of fear, comes in so questionable a shape … that no credit ought to be given to it; and therefore it is rejected. Id.  (quoting King v. Warickshall, 1 Leach 262, 263–264, 168 Eng. Rep. 234, 235 (K.B. 1783)).

Our legal system depends on parties and witnesses telling the truth. We don’t have any magical lassos, but over the years, courts have considered using our world’s less perfect forms of truth telling tools to assist with them in finding the truth. In the trial of the Aurora shooter, for example, the court ordered that the prosecution could use a “truth serum” if the shooter relied on an insanity defense, but only to determine if he was actually insane at the time of the shooting. This highly unusual order raised legal concerns because of the Constitutional issues mentioned above. In fact, in 1963 the Supreme Court specifically held that confessions brought about by “truth serums” are not the product of a free intellect and are therefore inadmissible. See Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 307–08 (1963), overruled on other grounds by Keeney v. Tamayo-Reyes, 504 U.S. 1 (1992). Medical experts also raised concerns about whether such a serum would actually be effective and/or reliable. Likewise, the efficiency of lie detector tests has also caused many jurisdictions to ban their use, although there are still a few locations where they can be used under certain circumstances.

So our legal system is left without a Wonder Woman or her lasso. The rest of us will just have to make do with our Wonder Woman toys to inspire us to keep up the fight for truth and justice! And hopefully none of us lawyers will end up bound and gagged without a Wonder Woman to rescue us (seriously, did Steve Trevor get tied up in every episode of Wonder Woman?)!

Star Wars 40th Anniversary Podcasts

Happy Anniversary Star Wars! The Far Away Galaxy from a long time ago has inspired lawyers and judges for 40 years. We recorded three podcasts to celebrate the Ruby Anniversary with friends who all love Star Wars. Join us for lawyers geeking out over why people love Star Wars, legal analysis, and more.

Enjoy, and remember, the Force will be with you. Always.

Baby Groot – From Custody to Child Endangerment with Nuclear Weapons

Baby Groot is adorable…and a dancing his way into great legal issues.

Just who is Baby Groot’s legal guardian? All of the Guardians acted as Groot’s guardian. Who would a court actually appoint as the guardian?

Baby Groot was grown from the remains of the original Groot. The law is not designed for adoption of talking trees, so a court could view the original Groot as the “parent” of Baby Groot. As such, Baby Groot would be an orphan.

A court would not appoint all of the Guardians of the Galaxy as the parents of Baby Groot, as custody is awarded to either a couple or single person. One likely option is for Rocket Raccoon to be the guardian of Groot. However, that would mean a court is deciding whether a scientifically enhanced raccoon could be the legal guardian of a sentient tree. A court on Earth likely would decline jurisdiction, unless Peter Quill was the petitioner. Gamora and Drax would also be cases of first impression for extraterrestrials to seek adoption of an infant tree.

States generally require a preliminary assessment on the eligibility of adoptive parents by examining their social history, criminal records, and the capability to meet the child’s needs. See, In re Carl R. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1051, 1062–1063. Moreover, the adoptive parents must understand their legal and financial responsibilities in adopting a child. Id.

Rocket, Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax, all had substantial criminal records, which would raise significant red flags for any adoption. However, the Guardians had been pardoned for past crimes and their records expunged. Their individual social histories are also complex, with bar fights, space pirates, and galactic war criminals. Moreover, how is it even remotely safe to have a child dancing during a fight with an inter-dimensional monster?

Child Protective Services would agree Rocket Raccoon and Star-Lord had a bad plan: Giving Baby Groot a nuclear weapon in order to stop a galaxy threatening celestial being. The weapon had one button for a 5-minute detonation and a second button to immediately set off the bomb. Baby Groot demonstrated a lack of understanding for which button to push, raising significant issues of child endangerment.

“Child endangerment” includes situations where a person “willfully causes or permits that child to be placed in a situation where his or her person or health is endangered.” CA Pen. Code, § 273a, subd. (a). While there are [thankfully] no court opinions with children entrusted with a nuclear weapons directly on point, most judges would agree giving a toddler a weapon of mass destruction with a dead man switch, would endanger the health of the child. No expert testimony would be required.

The Guardians of the Galaxy have a substantial number of warning signs that go against entrusting them with raising a child. That being said, each one demonstrated concern for Baby Groot’s well-being, from battles with monsters to wearing a seatbelt. Moreover, they provided a nurturing home, such as Drax holding Groot while he fell asleep. A court might overlook the issues, as no family is perfect, and who better to raise Baby Groot, then those who saved the galaxy twice?

Yondu Was Right to Not Give Star-Lord to Ego in 1988

The first Guardians of the Galaxy film established that the Ravager Yondu was hired by Peter Quill’s father, to bring the young Peter to his biological father, after the death of Peter’s mother. Yondu admitted he breached his contract with Quill’s father on the grounds the father was a “jackass.” No rules on anticipatory breach of contract have a “jackass” exception, but Yondu was correct to do so on other grounds.

As we learned in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, there were other reasons for Yondu to not return Peter to his father. Spoilers ahead, so do not read further if you have not seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. 

Meredith Quill stated on her deathbed that she intended Peter to live with his grandfather until Peter’s father returned for the boy. Meredith was not married to Ego the Living Planet, and it is not clear if Ego ever met Meredith’s friends or family. Moreover, it is unstated whether Meredith listed Ego on Peter’s birth certificate. As Meredith had sole custody of Peter, it is reasonable she could have stated in a will her intent that Peter’s father should have custody of Peter. However, if Meredith had known the truth about Ego, she would not have ever intended Peter live with his biological father.

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act is enacted in every state in the United States. As Peter was born and raised in Missouri, The Show Me State would have been Peter’s “home state” for a court to decide who had custody of Peter. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.445(4).

Ego would have had multiple challenges in bringing a petition to assert his parental rights over Peter. First, hiring mercenaries to kidnap a child from Earth would qualify as “reprehensible conduct,” and a court would decline to exercise jurisdiction over Ego’s case. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.475(1). Moreover, courts will not give a person custody of a child if they have caused the death of another child through abuse or neglect. See, CA Welf. & Inst. Code, § 300(f). The mass grave of intergalactic children would be Exhibit A to Ego’s unsuitability as a parent. Additionally, a Missouri Court would not be obligated to recognize an “out-of-state” decree from Ego himself, as the United States does not have any treaties or formal relations with the Living Planet. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 452.500. As there were limited legal means for Ego to take custody of Peter, Ego resorted to hiring Yondu to kidnap Peter from the lawful care of his grandfather.

Yondu had been hired multiple times by Ego to bring Ego’s children to his planet. Ego further represented that the children would not suffer; as such, Yondu arguably did not have actual notice that all of the children he brought to Ego the Living Planet were going to be killed. However, kidnapping children was one of the forbidden crimes for any Ravager (and parents in the United States). Moreover, Yondu should have been alerted that something was wrong with delivering multiple children to never be seen again to Ego. While Yondu could have justified to himself he was helping reunite children with their father, at the end of the day he was wrongly kidnapping children.

Yondu arguably had constructive notice that Ego’s children were being killed, because of the number of children who disappeared after being delivered to Ego. If Yondu suspected that Peter Quill was going to be killed, not delivering Peter to Ego was the correct action. Furthermore, there is a legal exception to kidnapping if a person takes or conceals a child in order to protect that child from “imminent danger.” See, CA Pen. Code, § 207, subds. (f)–(f)(1). Yondu could have reasonably believed he was in a better position to protect Peter from Ego than Peter’s grandfather, because Ego was an “imminent danger” to Peter’s life. However, no Missouri judge would ever rule in favor of a child being raised by a space pirate instead of a grandfather, in order to avoid the child being used by the biological father to conquer the universe, who also murdered the mother of the child in the custody dispute.

Yondu made the right decision in breaching his contract [criminal conspiracy] with Ego the Living Planet, albeit extremely late after multiple other crimes had been committed. Despite those shortcomings and teasing the Ravager crew wanted to eat Peter, Yondu seemed to be a good dad for a space pirate.

Star Wars: The Legality of Vader’s Boarding Parties

It’s May the 4th, which means that all Star Wars fans are morally bound to immerse themselves in the galaxy far, far away for an entire 24 hours. The Legal Geeks is no exception, so let’s turn our attention to the ultimate symbol of power and general bad-assery in the universe: Darth Vader. As the perennial winner of the “Best Star Wars Character with a Breathing Problem” category (sorry, General Grievous), Lord Vader is a shining example of the Galactic Empire’s might and menace. However, despite his general awesomeness, he is not quite the best example of how to do pretty much anything legally.

Vader has no time for silly concepts like proper interrogation techniques or the due process of law.

One might argue Vader’s effectiveness is fueled by his penchant for taking action. He doesn’t take time to discuss things as a committee; he simply fires up his lightsaber and goes to work. Vader possessed that trait long before he donned the iconic armor—after all, Yoda could count on one of his three-fingered hands the number of times Anakin mindfully planned something out with an eye towards possible consequences.

One of his boldest gambles was chasing down and boarding Princess Leia’s ship at the beginning of A New Hope. Vader’s pursuit, capture, and boarding of the ship are undoubtedly some of the most iconic scenes in all of film. While Vader’s tactics were certainly decisive, were they legal?

You may not have realized it at the time, but some of the first lines in A New Hope allude to some very real legal issues that Vader created by capturing and boarding Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV.

Princess Leia and Captain Antilles (may his crumpled body rest in peace) are not just delivering catchy lines in those opening scenes. Their comments to Vader touch upon some very real laws. Unfortunately, even though there are actual laws governing outer space, those laws have not quite advanced to the point of dealing with conflict between manned space ships. Fortunately for us, there is an entire collection of international and domestic laws that govern civilian and military naval operations. That body of law provides an excellent framework for judging Vader.

When confronted by Vader, both Captain Antilles and Leia immediately tout the ship’s diplomatic status. Prior to A New Hope, Princess Leia took very careful steps to protect the Tantive IV’s status as a diplomatic vessel. The ship itself belonged to the House of Organa on Alderaan, making it a vessel of state. Its hull was marked with distinctive scarlet stripes, which were the standard galactic marker for diplomatic ships. Leia routinely used the ship to ferry her on diplomatic missions related to her service in the Imperial Senate.

You can’t see it, but the Tantive IV sports a bumper sticker that says “DEFINITELY NO REBEL TRAITORS IN HERE.”

There is a very good legal reason behind all of those actions. As a matter of customary international law, all vessels that are owned or operated by a state and used only for government service are entitled to sovereign immunity. As an official governmental vessel of Alderaan, a sovereign planet, the Tantive IV would enjoy sovereign immunity so long as it was used for government service. This is why Leia was especially cautious when using the Tantive IV for missions related to the Rebellion—because doing so would risk the ship’s immunity.

That immunity was of critical importance because of the protections that come along with it. Under international law, any vessel that has sovereign immunity cannot be arrested or searched, whether sailing in national or international waters. Additionally, that privilege protects the identity of personnel, stores, weapons, or other property on board the vessel. Given those substantial legal protections, you don’t have to be Yoda to understand how important it was for Leia to maintain her ship’s immunity. She was free to operate the ship without fear that Imperials would stop and board. Similarly, she could transport important personnel, weapons, and other material (*cough cough* Death Star plans) under the same umbrella of protection—so long as secrecy was maintained.

In the real world, both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard adhere to the law surrounding sovereign immunity. The protection is taken very seriously and any decision to stop and board foreign vessels is made with the utmost care. Under normal circumstances, Darth Vader would have violated a serious tenet of international law if he had stopped and boarded Leia’s ship on a whim.

Obscure International Law 101: Any ship deemed to be “flying casual” is also immune from search and seizure.

Darth Vader made it clear that he seized the vessel because he believed it had received the Death Star plans from Rebel agents. Fans were left to wonder what sort of intelligence Vader was acting on when he chased down the Tantive IV—after all, Leia’s incredulous reaction certainly made it seem as if he had gone out on a limb.

Rogue One filled in that story gap and we now know that Vader personally witnessed the Tantive IV and its crew escape with the plans to the Empire’s prized battle station. This new chapter in the saga greatly weakens Leia’s legal position. Sovereign immunity is not an absolute right. State vessels risk losing those protections if they violate the law, which means they can then be stopped, boarded, and searched.

The act of intercepting a vessel at sea is known as a “maritime interception operation.” Maritime interception operations can include stopping, boarding, searching, and even seizing cargo from a vessel. There are a number of legal bases to conduct interception operations, including a state’s need to protect its forces and antiterrorism operations.

States can legally conduct maritime interception operations pursuant to international law in self-defense to protect its forces. Naval commanders have an inherent right and an obligation to defend their units and other nearby friendly forces from hostile acts or hostile intent. That means that a commander may stop and board another vessel if necessary in self-defense.

During the Battle of Scarif at the end of Rogue One, Rebel forces openly attacked a major Imperial facility and made off with critical classified intelligence. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer exited hyperspace to a chaotic scene in which Alliance warships were still in open combat. Under the circumstances, Vader had ample reason to exercise the inherent right to self-defense and attack the Rebel fleet.

The Rebel flagship, The Profundity, presented the biggest threat, which meant that Vader could legally disable and seize the vessel. Even though his Star Destroyer made short work of disabling The Profundity, the Rebel flagship still housed enemy personnel and weapons, which presented a threat to Imperial forces. The theft of the Death Star plans also presented a threat to Imperial forces that arguably triggered the need to act in self-defense. The plans were critical classified information that, if exploited, could endanger the lives of millions of Imperials aboard the battle station. Given the Rebels’ evasive abilities, it was imperative that the plans be recovered as quickly as possible. Vader thus had sound legal footing to disable and board the Rebel flagship.

 

 

Vader prepares to defend himself against vicious and threatening Rebel terrorists.

In spite of Leia’s outrage at the start of A New Hope, Darth Vader was also on solid legal footing when he captured and boarded her ship. Even though Leia and her crew did not actively participate in combat above Scarif, their actions still forfeited the ship’s sovereign immunity.

Vessels can be legally intercepted if they take part in acts of terrorism. The 1988 United Nations Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) established a legal framework governing acts of violence against ships. The SUA convention happened in response to the 1986 hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in which an American tourist was killed. In 2005, major amendments were made to the SUA treaty in order to combat terrorism. Under SUA, a ship can be stopped, seized, and boarded if it has committed or taken part in terrorist acts, even if there is no need to do so in self-defense.

The Empire generally regarded the Rebel Alliance as a terrorist organization, which means the attack at Scarif would have been characterized as a major terrorist act. Darth Vader had absolute proof that Leia’s ship was involved in the attack, as he witnessed Leia’s ship receive the Death Star plans before narrowly escaping. After Vader caught up to the Tantive IV above Tatooine, there was no real need to stop the ship in self-defense. After all, Leia’s diminutive corvette posed little threat to Vader’s colossal Star Destroyer. However, Vader was legally justified to stop and board the Tantive IV because of its participation in a terrorist act.

 

Don’t you go lying to your father like that, General Organa. You’ll find yourself grounded aboard the Death Star.

The fact that Leia’s ship was branded as a Rebel vessel is also problematic for her. When Leia incredulously accuses Vader of boarding a diplomatic ship, he declares that she is part of the Rebel Alliance. This hints at a critical aspect of the law. Under international law, vessels that are not legitimately registered in any one nation are known as “stateless vessels.” They are not entitled to sovereign immunity and may be boarded by warships or other governmental vessels. Once Leia’s ship was declared part of a stateless terrorist organization, it lost its diplomatic protections. That is why it was so important for Leia to mask the ship’s participation in Rebel operations.

Even though we normally associate Vader with some of the worst war crimes in Star Wars, he actually managed to do things by the book when he stopped and boarded Leia’s ship. Just be sure not to tell him that unless you want to join Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa in the throat hug club.