At some point, our society began holding lawyers in low regard. This cultural contempt goes beyond despising the relatively more affluent or detesting ambulance chasers.
As I navigated my way through law school, it occurred to me that one of the primary sources of frustration against lawyers is our frustration with society itself. Our society – like any developed society – can be a morass of regulations and requirements, limitations that are (at least in theory) designed to protect us from ourselves and others. Since we can't lash out against this faceless system, we choose to vent our frustration at those who seem to guard the gates to this machine.
Although going to law school means choosing to become one of these social pariahs, most (many?) would say it was worth it. On this Independence Day, I want to celebrate a hidden benefit of law school. Although law school's tour of legal history reveals more than a few legal villains, it also uncovers a number of legal heroes.
Here are a couple lawyerly actions that I first learned about in law school and which make me proud to be an American today. The first is heroic for its effect, if not its intent. The latter, for both.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower on September 8, 1953: Chief Justice Fred Vinson died on September 8, 1953, after the rehearing of Brown v. Board of Education had been reordered but not heard.
Had Vinson survived to rule on Brown's rehearing, Justice Felix Frankfurter believed there would have been 4 dissenters. According to legal legend, Frankfurter remarked that Vinson's death was "the only evidence I have ever had for the existence of God," for it permitted the nomination of Earl Warren to replace him on the bench.
At Vinson's death, Eisenhower kept a promise to then California governor Earl Warren to nominate him to the first available seat on the Supreme Court. With Warren at the helm, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown's rehearing that separate but equal facilities were unconstitutional.
Though Eisenhower would go on to consider his nomination of Warren to be a mistake, Eisenhower's promise to Warren led to the creation of the Warren Court and the dramatic expansion of civil rights in the decades that followed.
- Senator Clair Engle on June 10, 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was filibustered in the Senate for 57 days and its passage looked uncertain.
California Senator Engle, who had been struggling with brain cancer since 1963, returned to the Senate floor on June 10, 1964, to participate in the vote to end debate. Unable to speak due to his advanced cancer, Senator Engle pointed to his eye to indicate "aye" as his name was called in the roll-call vote. Engle's vote ultimately was one of the deciding votes, as cloture was met, ending the filibuster and permitting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to become law.
Clair Engle died one month later.