R.I.P.D.

R.I.P.D. is the Dark Horse comic about divine law enforcement officers which is being made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds and scheduled for release on June 19.  The trailer was just released today, in fact.  The basic premise is that Nick Cruz (Reynolds’ character) is a cop who is killed at the beginning of the story. But upon awaking in the afterlife, he finds himself confronted by a figure claiming to be. . . well God’s lawyer, basically. Turns out the Almighty has a bit of a special program for law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty: in exchange for the opportunity to bring their killers to justice, and a shot at heaven, deceased cops spend a century of service working for the R.I.P.D., the Rest In Peace Department, which has the divine mandate to seek out and deal with ne’er-do-wells from the netherworld who don’t stay where they’re supposed to.

So what can we say about this? If we’re to take the story at face value, not questioning its theological assumptions (which are basically a version of Christianity with your standard artistic license), it’s not as if the US legal system–or any mortal legal system–has anything to say to God. Or Satan for that matter. Indeed, the Western District of Pennsylvania basically dismissed a suit against Satan because he could not be served with process. U.S. ex rel Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1971).

But we can talk about the general issues of the contract. We’ve already discussed deals with the devil in two posts (Reaper and Ghost Rider respectively), but what about deals with God?

I. Reading the Fine Print

First, there’s the issue of the fine print, i.e., the ubiquitous contractual provisions, boilerplate in many instances, that most people never bother to read. In many deals, some of the most important language in the contract appears in the fine print. It usually doesn’t go to the main substance of the contract—might have a problem with meeting of the minds if it did—but it frequently goes to implementation or dispute resolution. Arbitration clauses are often in fine print. In this instance, the “fine print” includes such things as a badge brand which flares when there’s a new assignment, and involuntary, receive-only telepathic communication. It also includes such clauses as a prohibition against contacting living friends and relatives. Cruz doesn’t seem to have read the fine print. Is this sort of thing okay?

Again, leaving aside the question of whether it’s even possible to quibble with God about these things, it probably is. The main question here is whether there has been a failure of the meeting of the minds about a material term. Whether Cruz knew he was signing up for a hundred year gig is not entirely clear. The story can be read either way. He does seem to have known he was signing up for some kind of service, but it’s not clear whether he knew all the details. So that might be a problem. We’ll see why it isn’t in a bit, but that’s at least an issue to be flagged.

But the rest of it isn’t. Courts almost uniformly enforce written contracts as written unless the provisions violate a statute, are contradictory, ambiguous, nonsensical, etc. It is possible to get clauses struck for unconscionability, but it’s really hard, and nothing here seems to come close to what you’d need, even in a mortal court. The badge and no-contact provisions make sense given the nature of the job, and Cruz is dead after all. Even the hundred-year service period wouldn’t be a problem. Cruz has all eternity on his hands. The lawyer does say “Rest of it we can take care of later,” seeming to solicit a signature before adequately explaining the contract (which would probably be a violation of Model Rule 4.3). But Cruz seems so downright eager to get on with his revenge that he would probably have a hard time arguing that he was taken advantage of. He was given ample opportunity to investigate the contract—he’s got eternity to do it and wasn’t going anywhere until he made a decision—but the substance of his communication was “I’ll sign anything you want, just let me at ’em.” That kind of recklessness isn’t something courts look on favorably.

The deal probably wouldn’t even fail under the unfavorable adhesion contract analysis. The idea here is that in modern society, consumers very often sign contracts with large, powerful entities, where there is no opportunity for meaningful negotiation and manifestly unequal bargaining power. In such instances, terms which the reasonable person would not expect to be in the contract are unenforceable. This analysis is more rigorous in Europe, as American courts favor an objective rather than a subjective analysis, i.e., the term in question must be such that no reasonable person would consent to it if they knew about it, and no reasonable person would suspect it to be present in the contract. Courts also disfavor terms which are out of proportion to the value of the subject of the contract.

Here, the analysis seems to run pretty strongly in favor of the Lord. True, there is no opportunity to negotiate, and to call the parties’ bargaining power “unequal” doesn’t really begin to describe it. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the contract which isn’t logically related to the main deal. And the balance of values favors Cruz, not God: God is demanding a century of service under fairly onerous terms. In exchange, he’s offering eternal salvation. Doesn’t seem so bad when you put it that way. . .

II. Duress

But what about duress? Might Cruz argue that he was subjected to unfair duress, because the choice seems to be “Sign the contract or go to hell.” Might that work?

Actually. . . probably not. Reaching that conclusion requires accepting the story’s basic theological premises, but if we do that, duress doesn’t seem to be a viable defense. Here’s the deal. It’s not made clear in the story, but the impression I get from reading it is that the R.I.P.D. is mostly made up of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty who were already destined for hell. The impression I got from reading the story—and it’s an impression, there’s no explicit textual support here—is that an officer who was already destined for heaven might “volunteer” as it were, in exchange for the opportunity to bring his killer to justice, but that most of the R.I.P.D. force is primarily in the gig as a way of earning their place in heaven.

So it’s not really “Sign this or go to hell,” as if failure to sign is the reason one might be damned. It’s “You’re already going to hell, for reasons you know quite well. If you want a second chance, here’s the deal.” In essence, it’s a plea bargain. Or maybe turning state’s evidence. The prosecutor has you dead to rights. But for reasons of his own, he’s willing to offer you a deal. You can take that deal or not, but no court is ever going to invalidate that deal on the basis of duress, because any arguable “threat” is lawful. For duress to work as a defense to a contract, the threat needs to be improper or unlawful. Indeed, if it were otherwise, duress would work as a defense to a huge number of contracts, as most of them include one party refraining from enforcing some legal right as part of the consideration.

Now duress does involve a “no reasonable alternative” element, but we have to be careful here. Clearly, Cruz doesn’t seem to have any reasonable alternatives. But that’s okay. The element has to do with whether not an improper/unlawful threat is serious enough to ground a claim of duress. Even an improper/unlawful threat will not ground the defense if there are appropriate, legal alternatives to assenting to the proposed terms. But where the “threat” is proper/lawful, whether or not there is an appropriate legal alternative is irrelevant. As the story seems to assume that God has every right to send people to hell, the “threat” in this instance is proper/lawful, so the fact that Cruz doesn’t have any meaningful alternatives doesn’t enter into it.

III. Conclusion

So the contract here is probably enforceable. True, there are some irregularities with the way it’s signed, but the totality of the circumstances is such that Cruz would have a hard time avoiding the contract, or any of its terms, even if both of the parties were mortal and before a mortal court. True, the lawyer should probably have explained the terms better—and he might be exposed to a disciplinary action if he were on the mortal plane—but Cruz’s single-minded determination to do whatever it took to bring his killer to justice will severely impair any defenses he might raise. And because the “threat” of hell is assumed by the story to be proper, he doesn’t even have a claim of duress. So the short conclusion is that in comic book stories, making a deal with God is generally better for your long-term prospects than making a deal with the devil, but you still probably want to read the fine print. Like you should be doing in real life anyway.

R.I.P.D. is a fun little story, with amusing art and a clever premise. A prequel story, R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned is slated for release on June 4, two weeks before the movie is due out. It’s nice to have read the stories upon which comic book movies are based, so if you’re planning to see the movie—and it’s got Jeff Bridges in it, so you should be—I’d consider pick up copies of both.

19 responses to “R.I.P.D.

  1. What exactly did he do that was punishable by Hell? We do generally hold that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it, but all available sources of information on Abrahamic-related law (i.e. the Bible) are in no way consistent or clear and often might not comply with the U.S. Constitution*.

    *And despite a few lines on the dollar and the pledge of allegiance I’m fairly sure most people don’t seriously consider God to be the sovereign ruler of the United States.

    • The question of jurisdiction (or venue) is thus indirectly raised. Under U.S. law, there is no act that can be punished by eternal damnation, for several reasons. Therefore, it could be argued that the threat is *not* in fact lawful, because there is no law which gives anyone sanction to impose it. However, wherever Cruz is, it’s still subject to God’s law, because everywhere is (so far as we know.) If under God’s law Cruz is damned, then the threat is lawful in the jurisdiction where God makes contracts, and the implication is that he is in fact damned under God’s law.

      As to what constitutes a damnable course of conduct, the answers to that are many and varied. Could be as simple as declining to affirmatively accept Christ as his Lord and Savior, which many Christians believe the Bible says is sufficient to be damned, good works and the avoidance of sin notwithstanding. Or it could be activities which are not infrequently found among police, such as bearing false witness, etc., even if they did it because they believed it was beneficial to society to do it. Not to mention the whole “Vengeance is mine” angle, which it sounds like a person like Cruz could have been a little casual about.

    • Also, I suspect that most people would, if it could be proved to them that God existed and asserted same, stipulate that God is in fact the de facto if not de jure sovereign ruler of the United States. I certainly would.

      • Christopher L. Bennett

        I dispute the assertion that God, if proven to exist, would be the sovereign ruler of the US. The Constitution makes no provision for a sovereign, the word “God” appears nowhere in the document, and the First Amendment explicitly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Whatever authority God might be presumed to have over people’s lives would be spiritual, or perhaps parental, rather than governmental or legal.

        Indeed, remember the statement of the Declaration of Independence (not a legally binding document, but a statement of principle) that we are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights including liberty. Which means that the nation’s founders believed that God was okay with the idea of democracy, of letting us make decisions for ourselves.

        Not to mention that God was not a natural-born citizen of the United States, and thus would not be eligible for public office. Just about all government officials claim to be guided by God, but it’s strictly in an advisory capacity.

      • Ryan Davidson

        You’re equivocating on “sovereign”.

        True, if God were proven to exist, he would not suddenly become President or hold any other elected office.

        But that seems a rather pedantic point, don’t it? Would a being that created heaven and earth bother with elected office?

        So if you’re willing to use anything but the most narrow, strictly legal definition of “sovereign,” Martin’s point is a good one.

      • Melanie Koleini

        “God was not a natural-born citizen of the United States”

        Anyone present at in US at the time of the nation’s founding is also considered a citizen, eligible to hold elected office.

    • Remember, we’re assuming the story’s basic metaphysics and theology, which seem to be some version of pseudo-Catholicism, complete with a Dante-style hell. This isn’t the proper space for broader-ranging discussions.

  2. “it’s got Jeff Bridges in it, so you should”

    Yeah, but it’s also got Ryan Reynolds. :-/

    😉

  3. Interesting post.

    You mention he had plenty of time to investigate the contract before signing it, but does the fact that he has no meaningful opportunity to acquire his own counsel or attempt to conduct any research outside the contract itself impact the unconscionability analysis?

    • Unclear. Again, the lawyer didn’t really put any pressure on Cruz at all. He basically said “Sign this and you get to find your killer.” Cruz didn’t seem to care what the terms were and never bothered to find out. It’s not like he was dragged into this or pressured in any way. So the fact that there was no meaningful opportunity to consult with counsel may be as much Cruz’s fault as anyone else. We don’t know what would have happened if Cruz had asked any questions.

  4. Christopher L. Bennett

    I remember reading some story or article or something in which it was argued that if God is omnipresent, then God could, in fact, be called to appear in court — and indeed could not help but be present for the proceedings. I’m not sure where theology stands on the omnipresence of Satan, but it seems to me it would be easy enough to argue that evil is everywhere, and certainly shows up often enough in courtrooms. (Whether this refers to criminals or lawyers is up to the individual to decide.)

    In the recent column about ECHO, it was argued that a person is legally considered dead upon the death of the body, regardless of the survival of the consciousness in another form. So would Cruz, being dead, have any legal rights to assert? Or are we assuming that since the venue is the afterlife rather than the US, the definitions of legal nonexistence are different?

    • In analyzing the contract I’m kind of leaving death out of it. Assume Cruz was alive, and there wasn’t anything supernatural going on. Otherwise there’s really no legal analysis to be done, because the story assumes that God can do basically whatever he wants.

    • Ernie Chambers suggested the alleged omnipresence and omniscience of God as a basis for appeal, when his lawsuit against God was dismissed with prejudice over the impossibility of service being effectuated. The appeals court threw out the case outright, saying that the judiciary handles “real controversies and determines rights actually controverted, and does not address or dispose of abstract questions or issues that might arise in hypothetical or fictitious situation or setting”.

  5. Certainly a tangent from the discussion here, but the unconscionability part reminds me of the iTunes Terms of Service gag in the South Park episode “HUMANCENTiPAD”.

  6. If the contract terms boil down to “don’t sign and go to hell, sign, and perform services, and you might get into heaven, entirely at one party’s discretion”, doesn’t the contract have a consideration problem? This, of course, goes double if the person would have gone to heaven anyway?

    You still have the “mind control” can of worms, too, in analyzing a contract made with an omnipotent deity. Then there’s the challenge of obtaining a disinterested, impartial jury. And the matter of jurisdiction is far from settled. It is certainly claimed that God is resident in all 50 states, but I don’t think He willingly permits Himself to be bound by the authority of the court (trial of Jesus by the Romans notwithstanding, He was trying to make a point that time.) I think these issues would push the whole question into non-justicial territory (non-justiticiability? is that a word?)

    • As to consideration, Cruz absolutely does get the opportunity to go after his killer, so there’s valuable consideration on both sides. The heaven bit can go either way without invalidating the contract for want of consideration.

      As to the rest of it, again, I’m not all that interested in whether we can get jurisdiction over God in a mortal court. I’m pretty okay with saying that we can’t. All I’m interested in is what we’re left with if we take the theological questions completely out of it.

    • How can there be a question of “mind control” if we accept the Augustinian concept of free will?

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