EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN:
LAW AND MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
by Christine Corcos
Santa Claus and law in the
movies might seem to be a strange pairing. Yet several films,
including The Santa Clause (a homeowner accidentally knocks
off the jolly old elf and then must fill in for him), The
Night They Saved Christmas (Santa becomes an environmentalist
fighting off a big oil company), and A Different Kind of Christmas
(a district attorney learns the true meaning of Christmas after
she accepts her father's preoccupation with being Santa) invoke
the law to make different points about love and kindness at this
particular time of year. Movies about Santa usually make the
point that belief in him requires faith; physical evidence is
usually not forthcoming, at least not on a wide scale. None presents
a more interesting picture of the power of faith and the limitations
of evidence than Miracle on 34th Street, first made in
1947 and since remade several times as a television movie and
as a musical.
juxtaposes statements of belief and statements of fact in an
attempt to demonstrate that certain kinds of disputes ought not
to be submitted to the court. In particular, disputes about belief
should not undergo judicial scrutiny. The film gives us the story
of Kris Kringle, an elderly man who believes that he is Santa
Claus, and the effect he has on the people around him, among
them Doris Walker, a Macy's employee disappointed in love, and
her cynical young daughter Susan, an up and coming New York lawyer,
Fred Gayley, the district attorney, Thomas Mara, and a New York
State Supreme Court judge, Henry X. Harper, soon to be up for
re-election. Pleased with his performance as the Macy Christmas
Parade's Santa, Doris hires Kris as the store Santa Claus. But
Kris' outrageous claims that he is Santa Claus concern her. As
she points out, "all that has to happen is for a policeman
to ask him his name, and Clang! Clang! Bellevue!" The store's
psychologist is convinced Kris is quite mad, and eventually finagles
a competency hearing.
The courtroom scenes are among the most thoughtful and pointed
in the film, demonstrating that some issues are really not capable
of adjudication. When we subject them to legal analysis, we soon
discover the limitations of law.
Kris' attorney and physician are sure he is not dangerous. Says
his doctor, "Kris may be delusional, but it's a delusion
for good." Of course, this is quite true in the context
of the film, but it is not a defense in mental health law. Kris'
defense team must show not that he is delusional for good, but
that his delusions are not harmful. Attorney Fred Gayley, who
seems to be a corporate lawyer, is at a loss for a defense, especially
after Kris admits on the stand that he believes himself to be
Santa Claus, although his wits do not desert him. When the district
attorney asks him, "Where do you live?" he responds,
"That's what this hearing will decide," much to the
amusement of the court. As the hearing progresses, the District
Attorney demands that the court consider the question of whether
Santa actually exists. Judge Harper takes a short recess to confer
with his campaign manager, Charles Halloran. How can he really
take judicial notice of the existence of Santa? he asks Halloran.
"Ok," the campaign manager replies, "Rule that
Santa doesn't exist." The result? Children won't hang up
their stockings, parents won't buy toys, toy manufacturers will
go out of business and their employees will be unemployed. And
those employees vote. When that happens, says Halloran, "you
can count on just two votes [in your re-election campaign]...yours
and that district attorney's out there." "No,"
Judge Harper says sadly, "the district attorney's a Republican."
Faced with the grim realities that dog an elected judge, he returns
to his courtroom and announces that "the court will keep
an open mind" on the existence of Santa Claus, a Solomonic
decision that meets with Halloran's approval. Exclaims an astounded
district attorney, "He's crazy too!" He then leaps
up and demands that Gayley demonstrate to the satisfaction of
the court that Kris is "the one, the ONLY Santa Claus."
Gayley aceepts the challenge although he has no real method in
mind for proving Kris' identity. Finally he hits on the idea
of presenting opinion testimony, and calls small Thomas Mara,
Jr. to the stand. The judge asks the boy if he knows the difference
between a truth and a lie before allowing him to testify. "Gosh,
everybody knows you shouldn't tell a lie, especially in court,"
replies Tommy forthrightly. "How do you know Santa exists?"
asks Gayley, pursuant to present rule 704.. "My daddy told
me so," says little Thomas, "and he wouldn't tell me
a lie. Would you, Daddy?" The embarrassed D.A. acknowledges
that no, he is not in the habit of lying to his son. Pursuant
to FRE 602, Gayley also calls R. H. Macy and asks him if he believes
that Kris Kringle is the "real" Santa Claus. Macy,
reviewing the very positive effects that Santa has had on his
employees' and customers' mood and his own bottom line, replies
that yes, indeed, he does so believe.
In spite of this opinion testimony, things go from bad to worse
for the defense. The district attorney is both alarmed and amused
by this tactic. He continues to insist that the burden is on
the defense to show that Kringle is not mad, and the only way
to do that is to show that he is the real article. Gayley has
no evidence to support that contention and reluctantly concludes
that the case is lost. At this point, magical intervention in
the form of some U. S. Post Office employees, intervenes. Faced
with heavy bags of mail addressed to "Santa Claus, The North
Pole" and not wishing to send it all to the Dead Letter
Office, the employees decide sua sponte to send all this mail
to the courthouse where Kringle's sanity hearing is underway.
In the "nick" of time, these bags arrive in the courtroom.
An ecstatic Gayley urges the judge to accept them as evidence
that A"he U. S. Post Office, an official arm of the U. S.
Government, recognizes Kris Kringle as the one, the only Santa
Claus." Banging his gavel, the judge opines, "Since
the U. S. Government has seen fit to recognize Mr. Kringle as
Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed."
Everyone then disperses to carry out his or her holiday plans.
Miracle on 34th Street poses some interesting questions
about the ability of courts to intervene in disputes that are
matters of faith, a question that they wrestle with frequently,
though rarely with such elegance and so happy an ending. In addition,
it presents us with a man who is delusional only if, as his attorney
points out, he believes wrongly that he is Santa Claus. As he
says to the judge (paraphrased), "You believe you are Judge
Harper, yet no one suggests that you are crazy. Why? Because
you are Judge Harper." Much of our identity, he suggests,
is bound up in what we believe about ourselves and how much in
what others believe about us, a theme that we see repeated in
the works of Kafka and in movies like The Net. When does
fantasy become reality and belief become truth?
Has a court ever ruled on the existence of Santa? Not exactly.
But in December 2000 an Ohio probate court ruled against a petitioner
wishing to change his name to Santa Claus, saying that "The
history of Santa Claus -- the North Pole, the elves, Mrs. Claus,
reindeer -- is a treasure that society passes on from generation
to generation, and the petitioner seeks to take not only the
name of Santa Claus, but also to take the identity of Santa Claus.
Although thousands of people every year do take on the identity
of Santa Claus around Christmas, the court believes it would
be very misleading to the children in the community, particularly
the children in the area that the petitioner lives, to approve
the applicant's name change petition. Therefore, for the foregoing
reasons, the court finds that it would be against public policy
to grant the application of the petitioner."
For your intellectual holiday stocking, consider the following
lawsuits and prosecutions. They're not real, but they could be.
v. Santa Claus (Santa
accused of entering the U.S. without a valid passport and other
v. Santa Claus (Santa accused of violating privacy rights
Charges Brought Against Santa Claus (List of charges from
breaking and entering to antitrust violations)
Pole Standoff (About the elf cult)
- Santa Quits
Again (Santa calls off Christmas Eve deliveries due to excessive
- A short bibliography
of Santa Claus and the Law
- A Santa
Posted October 27, 2002