Monday, October 4, 2010

Supremely Stupid

I don't like the word stupid except when it is used in its literal sense.  For example, when author Laura Ingalls Wilder used it in The Long Winter, she was referring to the mental state her family was in when they were freezing, starving, and probably suffering from low degree carbon monoxide poisoning. They were slow of speech, slow of wit and slow of movement. So it fits.

But today I found myself yelling at the radio, "No! No! No! That is SO stupid!"

(I don't like yelling at the radio either because it never seems to change the people's minds on there!)

It was a local show that is nationally syndicated. I normally don't listen to it because it raises my blood pressure too much.  But, because today is the first Monday in October they were talking about the Supreme Court and as a lawyer, I am fascinated by the dignity of the Supreme Court and the way it has to maintain the delicate balance between the branches.  They were talking about what future Supreme Courts might look like. In this, they were debating the merits of having the Supreme Court lawyers come largely from the Ivy League, with many of them never having spent any real time in the trenches practicing law, but instead most coming from political or academic positions.

And then one person said, and another agreed, "I'd like to see a non-lawyer on the Supreme Court."


Any lawyer who has taken Constitutional Law (and I believe it is required in all law schools -- it certainly was in mine) understands that the ONLY reason the Supreme Court works at all is because the people confer upon it a respect for its decisions. The Court has NO power to make or execute the law (spare me the judicial activism arguments for the moment). Its job is to INTERPRET the law.

One cannot interpret the law without a deep understanding of the law. Not a "made-for-tv-talking heads-I know-more-than-you" understanding, but a real depth that one only gets through being trained in the law itself.

I think I know where their STUPID suggestion originates.  It goes back to lawyer advertising.  Prior to the 1980's, most State Bar Associations prohibited their members from advertising on radio or tv. One could put a discrete ad in a newspaper, or hang a shingle out in front of their office, but that was it. Part of the reasoning was that lawyers needed to maintain decorum and dignity in order for the general public to respect and uphold the law.

But once those advertising floodgates opened, lawyers did such embarrassing things to attract business that the entire profession became a laughing stock. How could anyone respect the law when the lawyers were trying to sell their images rather than their substance? Sure, for all the con-men ads there were dozens of lawyers who didn't advertise and who maintained the dignity of the profession. But who did the American public see?  People like the lawyers who flocked to Bhopal, India in the wake of that disaster. Or the circus that masqueraded as a trial of O.J. Simpson.

Long ago, when I clerked for Judge George M. Honts, III (the closest man to Atticus Finch I've ever met), he taught me that the reason the bench is raised in the courtroom is not because the JUDGE is more important, but because the JUDGE is the embodiment of the authority of the law in that setting and the LAW is what is being raised up. He redesigned his courtroom so that the jurors sat in front of him facing away from him. They had a clear view of the witnesses and the defendant. He told me he wasn't convinced that he could keep his facial expressions from giving away what he was thinking about the case, and he wanted an impartial jury to be just that.

He also told me that when he ascended to the bench, he had to stop being an usher in church. No one told him he had to stop, but as an usher, he had to pass the collection plates and he didn't want anyone ever thinking that they should put more money in the plate to impress the judge. He took his calling very seriously and he was the one who taught me the "appearance of impropriety is enough for the lawyer to bypass a case that otherwise looks like a good one to take." He was very big on "can you look at yourself in the mirror and say I did the right thing."

These people on the radio suggested someone like the hostess of the show or Sen Al Franken. Oh puh-leez. One of the deep regrets of my life is that I didn't get down to Lexington to see Judge Honts before he passed away, but I sure am glad he didn't live to hear THAT comment!

I think I'm going to go hide my head in shame now. My profession has sunk so low that former comedians turned senator (not much of a job change there) are seen as "scholars of the law" enough that they could ascend to the highest court in the land.

We've done this to ourselves.

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