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Legally Speaking, Is There a ‘Stephen Glass’ Ceiling?

TO BE OR NOT TO BE deemed of sufficient high character and moral fortitude so as to be licensed to practice law in the great state of California is the question currently being considered by the California Supreme Court, regarding noted author/trickster Stephen Glass, who, in the 90s, wrote dozens of non-fiction stories for publications like The New Republic, Harpers and Rolling Stone before it was discovered that they were in fact, “non – non – fiction,” i.e., invented, fabricated, made up by Glass, and who was summarily dishonorably fired and disgraced, vilified to be of such moral turpitude as to cast dishonor on the profession of journalist – a field that includes reporters for the National Enquirer, Entertainment Tonight, and Matt Drudge. We’re talking big heaping mounds of turpitude-ness here.

So now, naturally, Glass wants to be an attorney.

Actually, Glass seems to have seen it as the logical next step. After being excommunicated from journalism in 1998, he went to Georgetown University’s law school, and passed the California bar exam in 2007. His application to practice law in the state was turned down by a California State Bar admission committee in 2009, then overturned by a State Bar court judge, then over-overturned by an internal State Bar appellate court in 2011, and soon the California Supreme Court will weigh in with the final word.

Glass is currently employed as a paralegal for a Los Angeles personal injury firm, which sounds like a curiously good fit.

Reflecting the contradictory court decisions, the legal community is divided over whether he should be granted a license to practice law. Glass has reformed, been in therapy, apologized to his victims and come out of the experience “a different man,” according to supporters, including the owner of The New Republic, who testified on his behalf in court, apparently telling Glass as he was leading him out of the building by the scruff of his neck, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 42 times, put me down as a character witness.”

But detractors say that the law is one of those (rare) professions in which one’s honesty and integrity is intrinsic to upholding its institutional values, and so must be beyond reproach, the widespread public opinion of lawyers demonstrating something less than that, notwithstanding.

Glass, then, is kind of a legal Rorschach test: where you stand on his admissibility likely depends on your view of the possibility of human redemption, rehabilitation and the role of the lawyer in society.

Even if the court rules in Glass’ favor, he’ll always be met with skeptics. A far better match, it seems to me given his interest in law, fictional story-telling abilities, and past career as a lowlife, would be as a staff-writer for the upcoming Breaking Bad spin-off series “Better Call Saul,” centered around Saul Goodman, the sleazy but endearing “criminal” lawyer, who can work the angles off a hexagon.

And then there’s this:

The New York Times reports that in our age of digital reporting, not only is truth being seen as “malleable,” many readers don’t care and/or assume that to be the case. Quoth the Times: “Digital news sites are increasingly blurring the line between fact and fiction, and saying that it is all part of doing business in the rough-and-tumble world of online journalism.”

The piece then cites several stories that were online sensations that turned out to be false, including a first-person essay on poverty that garnered $60,000 in donations to the author, who, when outed, described her essay as “impressionistic” rather than factual (And kept the money).

All of which is to say that if the California Supreme Court rules that Glass is unfit to practice law…

Well, the kid might just have a future. In journalism.

But more and more it’s looking like Glass’ main crime was being ahead of his time.

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