It’s the most wonderful time of the year, in part because it’s the best time to watch one of the great court cases of cinematic history. I’m referring of course to Miracle on 34th Street, a film that hinges on one lawyer’s ability to prove that Santa Claus is in fact Santa Claus.
Our story begins when Kris gets a job playing Santa Claus at the flagship Macy’s store in Times Square. When Kris insists that he is the real Santa Claus, he’s committed to a mental institution. Kris’s friend, Fred Gailey, just so happens to be a lawyer and rushes to his rescue. Fred Gailey shocks the court when he announces that his game plan is to prove Kris’s true identity as Santa Claus.
There’s also a cute kid who wants a house in the suburbs, but she’s not as important from a litigation support perspective.
The original film was made in 1947, with a remake made in 1994. Needless to say, our way of storing information has changed since then, and that’s reshaped the way lawyers build court cases. How would the case in Miracle on 34th Street be different if it happened today, when records are stored electronically? Would Santa use a GPS or tag his locations on Instagram? Does he have “find my iPhone” on in case he gets stuck in a chimney again? Maybe he uses Microsoft Teams and Zoom to make sure the elves are still holding down the fort at the North Pole while he’s in New York. Let’s look at some more specific examples from the movie and how this information would be managed today.
One of the first indications that Kris might in fact be the real Santa Claus is his employee record at Macy’s. This lists Santa’s reindeer as Kris’s next of kin and says he’s from the North Pole.
Today, these records would live in some kind of electronic database. Legal teams not only look at these records, but also have to think critically about how they might’ve been tampered with. That’s just the nature of electronic records vs. paper records. Honestly, who wouldn’t be suspicious if they saw a record that looks like this?:
Who has access to those records? Who has edit permissions? Can they access those records from personal devices as well as corporate owned devices? Is there any possible way that passwords could have fallen into the wrong hands? Those are the kinds of questions that a good forensics analyst can answer.
To verify document integrity, analysts oftentimes look at something called “metadata.” That refers to information such as “date created,” “date last modified,” and “author.” All data comes with metadata, and since it’s not as easily editable as the records themselves, it often proves crucial in digital forensics investigations.
Analysts can look at a hard drive and figure out if data was moved to other devices, if edit histories were deleted, etc. Assuming Macy’s had good information governance practices and required everyone with edit access to use different passwords, forensics teams could also deduce which passwords were used to make any edits. In some cases, they may even testify in court to assure judges that records are what they appear to be (or maybe that they’re not what they appear).
Letters to Santa
The “smoking gun” of the original 1947 movie are the thousands of letters to Santa Claus delivered to the New York City courthouse. Fred Gailey argues that the post office’s decision to deliver these letters to Kris equates to government validation of his true identity: Santa Claus.
According to the USPS, kids still send hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa every year. The USPS even has a special address they ask people to use for such letters. This system means it’s unlikely that thousands of letters would be delivered to the courthouse like in the movie, since people have been instructed to address such letters to 123 Elf Road.
However, snail mail is just one of numerous ways to get in touch with St. Nick these days. EmailSanta.com has been on the net since 1997. However, the site’s About Us page admits that it was built not by Santa himself, but by a man named Alan Kerr. There are also numerous Santa Claus Twitter accounts, albeit none of them have a blue checkmark.
This is perhaps where Fred Gailey would have the biggest uphill battle if he were to try this case today. The Internet has made it infinitely easier for other people to claim they are Santa. Gailey would have to prove that 1) one of the numerous online Santa platforms is the definitive way to get in touch with the real Santa and 2) That Kris was the man behind such an account.
Let’s assume that by 2020, Santa has gotten with the times and has a proper email account for children to email him with a parent’s supervision. Gailey wants to present Kris’s emails in court. During the Meet and Confer stage of litigation, Gailey and opposing counsel would agree on a certain amount of emails to review. This way, if Kris and Fred were trying to fake letters to Santa, opposing counsel could do their own forensic analysis and figure that out.
Of course, since Kris really is Santa, there would be a few facts on his side. The litigation support team would be able to verify that he does receive numerous letters to Santa every year. Odds are those letters would be in various languages from all over the world. Sure, that makes it harder to put together a team for review, but it also makes it virtually impossible for opposing counsel to prove that Kris is faking it.
The best way for Gailey to build a case is similar to the way many complex litigations happen now: build a narrative from both electronically stored information and real-life events. Imagine if Gailey could prove that 1) children asked for certain gifts in emails to Kris and 2) they actually received those same gifts and 3) those gifts didn’t come from parents or other relatives “playing Santa.”
With presumably thousands of emails to Santa to choose from, this shouldn’t be that difficult. Platforms such as Relativity help review teams search for keywords in different emails. They could search for particularly high demand toys that parents would have trouble finding on their own. After finding such emails in review, Gailey could cross-reference them with Kris’s records of which children got which gifts, because obviously Santa knows the importance of maintaining such records. Nothing gets you on the naughty list as quickly as bad information governance. Gailey could reach out to families and get them to testify on the stand that they did not know where these gifts came from.
Exploring these sorts of cases helps us understand how people in this space think on a day-to-day basis. Legal tech has to be about more than fast processing and aesthetically pleasing interfaces, though those certainly don’t hurt. It’s also about having the right people who understand how to build a case and know what to look for in discovery. If you were Fred Gailey, what would your discovery strategy be? How could you verify Kris’s identity and what kind of technology would make it easier? Let us know!