In the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man”, Data’s right to autonomy and status as a sentient (technically, sapient) being is called into question. A starfleet admiral holds a trial requiring the first and second officers of the Enterprise to act as counsel. Picard is assigned to defend Data which he gladly accepts. Riker is assigned to argue against Data’s personhood, and he initially refuses, stating that he would never argue against Data’s personhood, because he would not believe in what he’s arguing, and that Data is his friend. The admiral pontificates that sometimes people will be in situations where they “need” to argue for a position they don’t personally hold, and that if he refuses, she will summarily rule against Data.

This always bothered me but I couldn’t put my finger on it the first time I watched the episode. Now, I realize that the issue lies in the concept of a conflict of interest.

In real legal systems, a lawyer generally cannot have conflict of interest in the case they’re arguing. If they truly don’t believe in what they’re arguing, or if they have a personal relationship with the person they’re arguing against, those absolute would count as conflicts of interest. It wouldn’t be fair to the person they’re representing, and wouldn’t result in a completely fair trial, which people should have the right to. Even if they genuinely make every effort to block out their personal thoughts on this case, it will still subconsciously affect their performance. In this case, yes, as Riker says in the episode, they’ll have to find someone else do fill the position.

And what’s with ruling summarily if Riker refuses? Imagine if that happened at a real life trial: “Oh, your opponenr can’t find a lawyer that will represent them? Guess they win!” That shouldn’t happen. What’s stopping them from deferring the trial until they can find proper counsel? Why the rush? Actually, that was the excuse they used for forcing Picard and Riker, who aren’t trained lawyers, to represent this trial in this first place, that the starbase they’re at is brand new, and there isn’t enough staff for a proper hearing. Then wait for more staff? If you want a fair trail, you can’t rush through it? You need to wait until you’re capable of holding a fair trial!

And even if you say “oh Starfleet is a military organization, and military trials are different from civilian trials”. Except they’re not currently at war, so they have no logistical reason to hold any sort of emergency tribunals, and also, rulings relating to human rights (or android rights) should absolutely not be made in a military court. It probably shouldn’t even be made in a regular trial court, but by the supreme court.

All in all, even though this was still a very powerful episode due to what actually happened in the trial, the opening and premise didn’t make much sense. A proper legal system shouldn’t have operated like that, let alone a Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communist society. The trial should have waited until the proper staff can be acquired.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Why or why not? Other thoughts?

Here’s a video a real lawyer made on this episode, which also addressed this issue:

I mean, they had limited casting budget, but also as a piece of art a story needs be driven by the characters and also inform their development as characters. Given those parameters the showrunners had to find a way to force the characters of Riker, Picard, and Data to grapple with the issue. Great episode though


Yep, they also do dumb stuff like have all the vital command crew be the ones doing all the away team missions. Totally unrealistic but forgiveable because its necessary for good character development.

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