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Acquittal Hangover – in Military Justice

Man, oh man. The highs are high and the lows are so low in military justice.

There is no feeling like it. “Accused and defense counsel, please rise.” The findings (what we call the verdict in military courts) are in, the judge knows, and we are about to know their collective answer. For military (in)justice.

Several years ago, I recounted to an Air Force uniformed co-counsel after a full acquittal at McChord AFB, WA on a sexual assault case – “Why would anyone do heroin when they can get the feeling we just got from [our client’s] acquittal?” Her reply? Because people who use heroin cannot do what you just did. Fair point, well made.

And although I have never tried heroin, or meth, or any illicit or illegal drug, (or even cigarettes – yep!), I imagine the high has to be something comparable – at least for someone who has never experienced a manufactured high. I imagine the crash after coming down is similar as well.

I call it a “hangover” for military justice, but I don’t think it is a fair comparison. I have learned to try to pad my landing from the anticipated (and grateful) high of experiencing vindication and victory for a client – for the crash that is sure to follow. I surround myself by those who love me. Or with Chinese food. Because, well – comfort.

This last week, I felt absolute relief at the timing of my trial’s finish – within hours of a local working group for the Trial Lawyers College in Tacoma. I knew that I needed to surround myself with people who would welcome me, understand me, and forgive me if I needed to bask in their loveliness. I did not participate in the group, any more than feeling the collective empathy of these beautiful creatures, all drawn to the same plight – to be the voice for those who would otherwise not have a warrior to do battle in their name and on their behalf.

After a “win,” I tend to hit as low a low as anyone can imagine. It never changes. Sometimes I find myself basking in and lapping up anger, intensely disgusted I had to do battle in that case – why hadn’t the government seen the injustice of it?! Others make me question why I have chosen this path, where I tend to get so lost in the emotions of others that I hardly recognize any of my own. Maybe that’s the why. More on that for another day…

The high is so high, but man, that low is so powerfully low.

I’ve dubbed it the “acquittal hangover,” but this title hardly captures the fall.

The more I’ve pondered this rollercoaster, the more I think the phenomenon is partly responsible for the substance abuse of trial lawyers. Likely trying to recreate the high, to thwart and hold at bay the low. The low, which is so vacuous, so overwhelming, that is drowns out all of the joy. So much so, one can forget the climb.

I am skeptical there is any “cure” for these sensations. I write to encourage others to be vigilant of its existence, to prepare for the inevitable crash, and to help others to be mindful of any unhealthy coping mechanisms. Two of my most beloved colleagues have recently bowed away from the battle, and I applaud their efforts of self-care, really survival. When we care as much as we do, it can seem inevitable to self-sacrifice. But if we are to be in this fight for the long term, we have to do more than take a hot bath and go for a long run.

So be grateful for the high, but look out for that certain collapse; and make sure the waves of it don’t swallow you in its wake. I’m here for anyone that needs a safe place to land.

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