There was this guy I knew when I was a kid.
Pillar of the community – the only lawyer in town, actually. Always in a suit, even hanging around in his own house. Real straight up guy – MC’d everything from the Holy Rosary athletic banquet to the Kiwanis Club Christmas night. Nixon Republican, Vietnam War supporter, fiscal conservative. He was pretty cool, though. Coolest guy I ever knew.
When I stride into the courthouse every morning, I think about him. He was gracious to everyone, friend and foe. He stood tall in that conservative suit. I can’t say I ever saw him actually practicing law, although I knew that’s what he did. But he brought his kind bearing with him everywhere he went. People may have disagreed with him, but nobody didn’t like him.
The Vietnam era was ugly and, with me as a teenaged know-it-all, we had some very intense conversations about the war and all of the other extraordinary issues of the day. He was a WWII veteran, serving in a boat on the Pacific for some very long years. He respected authority and often seemed bewildered by the freedom my generation felt and exercised. We talked and yelled and vented – understanding each other more than we could admit at the time.
I learned from him the bearing of a true professional man, the respect for opposing views, the value of informed argument and fair play. It was he who first got me interested in the law and the interplay of facts and precedent, even though we didn’t talk much about the details of his work and I never saw him appear in court.
The only case we ever discussed was a client of his who was charged with littering, raising the following issue: if you pick up a can on the side of the road and throw it into a nearby river, can you yourself be charged with littering for simply moving something that had already been littered? 40 years later – 22 as a lawyer – and I still don’t know the answer to that one.
He died in 1971, when I was 16.
I think he would have been surprised and saddened by the nasty partisan tone that politics and, now, the law has taken. He certainly did the best for his clients and his friends, but he was not a win-at-all-costs kind of guy. He would have expected better than Republicans and self-appointed conservatives have behaved in recent years. If Nixon’s crimes didn’t do it, the machinations of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove may have well turned him into a Democrat.
But, I like to think that he would be saddest about the state of the legal profession – the crumbling of impartiality, the selling of the state Supreme Court to monied interests. He would want to have his arguments rise and fall on their own merits, not because any court had been stacked for or against him. He would have been outraged by the racism used against the first African-American on the Supreme Court. He would have been sickened by an electorate that bought the lies of an out-of-state band of profiteers who propped up a disgraceful empty suit to carry their water.
I would have liked to have introduced him to my friend, Louis Butler. I know they both would have enjoyed each other’s company; the banter of engaged, open minds; the laughter of recognition of experiences somehow shared in dramatically different lives. Both would have met gladly on the field of intellectual debate. Louis probably would have "won" on points, but both would have reveled in the lost art of respectful disagreement and the meeting of the minds.
That guy was my dad. His memory is just one of the thousands of reasons that I'm sorry Louis Butler lost tonight.