Kill All the Lawyers?

When I was an undergraduate, in the early 1970s, one of the most popular dorm room posters, along with Jimi Hendrix and Farrah Fawcett, was a quote from  Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The line showed up on t-shirts and bumper stickers also. I’m not sure why these posters were so popular — I have a much better idea for the late, and highly lamented, Mr. Hendrix and Ms. Fawcett — but I suspect it was something along the lines of creating a new world order, the “Age of Aquarius,” perhaps, with a dash of “Ten Days That Shook the World.”

The sentiment, whatever its merits, made a rather unliterary choice for its motto. Anyone who has actually read Henry VI knows that Dick “the Butcher”, a murderous follower of the rebel Jack Cade, offers the line as a suggested first step to bringing about  anarchic chaos, the kind of environment loved by opportunistic criminals. Lawyers need to be killed precisely because they are the defenders of the rule of law and the people’s Magna Carta liberties. An ironic choice for defenders of free speech, peace and brotherhood.

The news this week helps us understand Dick the Butcher’s thought process. Yesterday the New York Times had a column by David Brooks, “The Lawyers Who Did Not Break,” praising federal prosecutors, including assistant US attorney Robert Khuzami, who continue to do their job in the face of intense political pressure to back off. Politico magazine today has a profile of Karl Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, that makes essentially the same point. (Who knew that the District of Columbia even had an attorney general?) Above all, of course, we have Robert Mueller, quietly (to the media, frustratingly quietly, I suspect) doing his job with the background noise of presidential tweets calling him everything except a child of God.

Mr. Brooks says:

The point of this is not to lionize Khuzami. He’s part of a team. There are teams like that spread anonymously throughout the U.S. government. They are clinging tenaciously to the old standards of right and wrong, to the Constitution and the rule of law. And if we get through this, it will be because of people like them.

Nor should we lionize lawyers in general. We have an equal number of sordid examples, whether it is new attorney general William Barr populating the White House and the federal government generally with friends and family, or the periodic media pratfalls from the not-late and decidedly unlamented Rudy Giuliani, the president’s own special counsel in charge of something or other. But in one regard, I think Mr. Brooks goes not far enough. These lawyers represent not the rule of law, but the rule of Law. The work of Mr. Khuzami and Mr. Racine and Mr. Mueller pays strict attention, to be sure, to precise legal standards and evidentiary details. But their work comes from someplace deeper, more fundamental: a sense that what transpires from this administration is simply not right, that it violates standards of honesty, decency, and, dare we say, virtue that do not depend on any statute or regulation, but in fact form the basis for those statutes and regulations, and without which laws (with a lower case “l”) cannot stand.

Which would include, of course, presidential emergency declarations. A judge or a member of the clergy, by saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife” makes it so. Philosophers call this a “speech act;” the words have the power to make real the matter they pronounce. The President seems to think he has unlimited power to perform speech acts, in the same way that the Queen of England can pronounce Mick Jagger (!) or Judi Dench  a knight or a dame. By saying “we have a national emergency,” the current state of affairs on the border becomes a national emergency. (This may be true, but not in the way he means.) Not so. The President’s power is to recognize a national emergency, not anoint one. That is the essence of the rule of law.

So, I suggest we all take a moment to raise our glasses to Messrs. Mueller, Khuzami, Racine, and colleagues. Long may you live.

Let Us Now Praise Minor Players


At the center of Covent Garden in London lies St. Paul’s Church. Known as the “Actor’s Church,” it lies close to Drury Lane, the Royal Opera House, and the West End Theater District. The church’s portico features in both Shaw’s Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, (although in the movie it’s actually a Hollywood set, not the building itself.)

Inside the church one finds memorials to many famous actors:  Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vivian Leigh, and Boris Karloff, to name just a few. St. Paul’s routinely hosts memorial services for artists, including, recently, Alan Rickman. In a corner of the church, however, you’ll find a small memorial to Tony Sympson, who had a long career of minor roles. Sympson’s plaque calls him an “inspired player of small parts,” a memorial we should all wish for.

Compare this with the currently popular icebreaker, on late-night talk shows and at cocktail parties, in which people are asked to choose an actor to portray him or her in the movies. The answer, invariably, is not someone like Tony Sympson, but some A-list actor, charming, dazzlingly beautiful, and clever. (Note to casting directors: if a fraction of these movies gets made, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johannsson will be booked for the next few centuries.) What this tells us is that everyone thinks of him or herself as the star of the movie, not as a bit player  in someone else’s movie.

Last time, I described three different models of ethics: deontological (rule-based), consequentialist, and virtue-based. I said that Immanuel Kant attempted to systematize deontological ethics, proposing what he called “categorical imperatives;” rules that would be true always and everywhere for everyone. The most famous categorical imperative is sometimes called the “humanity principle”, and summarized as “treat persons as subjects, not objects.” Kant’s more precise formulation holds that humans should never be treated as a means only, but always as an end.

It’s human nature, of course, to think of ourselves as the star of our own lives, the center of all that we see and hear. Kant’s humanity principal, however, whispers in our ear that this is true for everyone. The cashier that sold me groceries this morning may only play a small part in my day, but I am only one of dozens of customers she’ll help, not to mention family, friends, and her own encounters with clerks and cashiers. I am no more the center of her day that she is of mine. Moreover, I have no rightful claim that my life is any more important than hers. Call this Einstein’s theory of social relativity. None of us is at the center of the social universe, because there is no center, so none of us can claim a privileged view of daily or worldly affairs.

The President’s State of the Union address approaches, and we should bear this principle in mind as we listen to his speech, the Democratic response, and as we read the news generally. Think about recent events. The oft-repeated statistic coming out of the government shutdown was that 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or working without pay. Eight hundred thousand, it turns out, is also the number of approved DACA applications (or so it is reported) that are now in jeopardy. What was supposed to be a serious discussion about policy issues – immigration at the fore – came to sound like a Ronco commercial: 800,000 DACA extensions for only $5.7 billion of border wall, with funding for 800,000 government workers, a Veg-o-matic and two Pocket Fishermen if you act in the next thirty minutes. To which came in response a string of Monty Python-worthy insults (although, as far as I know, lacking references to hamsters or elderberries), culminating in the cancellation of the State of the Union address and a Congressional delegation to Afghanistan. To which I respond, ‘I call both your oys and I’ll raise you two veys.’

If this highly unedifying episode made you feel as if the DACAites and the furloughed workers were (changing metaphors in mid-stream) so many poker chips, you’re not alone. That feeling comes from seeing persons treated as objects, as a means to an end. Both sides of the debate were willing to let 800,000 workers go without pay (many of them forced to work anyway) until getting their way on the wall dispute. There certainly was plenty of hand-wringing about those poor workers, but almost no media attention paid to any one of them. We forget that we don’t harm 800,000 persons. We harm one person, and then another, and then another, 800,000 times. I’ll stop there; the phrase “and then another” written 800,000 times would fill approximately 4,800 pages, which is four copies of War and Peace or two years of the federal budget. Meister Kant would not be amused.

Meanwhile, local governments and churches and service clubs and plain folks gathered together to support the furloughed and unpaid workers, and minister to the refugees waiting on the immigration process and carry on everyday kindnesses. In Chicago, someone anonymously rented twenty hotel rooms so that homeless persons could escape the coldest weather of a generation. In my own community, people put together a shrimp and crab boil for unpaid Coast Guard workers and families, and night after night take food and clothes to immigrants waiting on the bridge to come into the United States. This is what treating humanity as subjects looks like. This we might call the Tony Sympson theory of social relations: inspired acts of small kindnesses.

Certainly large government has to act in terms of broad policy; we can’t have a separate law for each person or family. But at the same time, we should remind them that their policies impact individuals. Today is the Feast of the Presentation, Candlemas in Britain.  Forty days after Jesus’s birth, Joseph and Mary’s present their firstborn in the Temple for dedication to the Lord, just as YHWH commanded Moses on the first Passover. Simeon recognizes Jesus as the one that will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Jesus does that, as we find out, by healing and feeding and forgiving one person at a time. The next time our politicians want to trade millions for billions, we should remind them that there is a different way.

Duly Noted

Confession of St. Peter

When the Cleveland / Los Angeles / Anaheim / St. Louis / Los Angeles Rams eliminated the Dallas Cowboys from Super Bowl contention, the holiday season officially closed in Texas. (It ran a couple of weeks longer than usual this year.) The presents have been opened, the roast beast carved and devoured, families kissed goodbye and sent on their way, the New Year rung in, bowl games watched, black eyed peas eaten, and the Christmas tree taken down (O happy day!). Then, ready to settle down for a pleasant Sunday afternoon of napping through playoff games we care little about, someone (or something) taps us on the shoulder. It’s that most unwelcome visitor, the ghost of Christmas lingering we’ll call him, pointing his bony finger at the new pen and box of note cards on your desk. It’s time to write those thank-you notes.

There are apparently people who enjoy writing thank-you notes. I’ve never met one, and I’m not sure what I would think of them if I did. I fear that I would find them a bit too dourly perfect: Mary Poppins without the sense of humor. But C.S. Lewis, for one – someone decidedly not lacking in a sense of humor — was reputed not only to enjoy it, but to write immensely gracious, funny, and creative notes. He once thanked a friend who regularly sent him gifts of food with a note saying “If the apparently unceasing flow of your generosity continues, I shall, in common gratitude, have to put a placard on my back stating that “This body has been reconstituted entirely by the generosity of Edward A. Allen, Esq., of Westfield, Mass., USA.” (If one writes like that, why wouldn’t one enjoy it?) Nevertheless, the note-writing task must be underappreciated, else we would not need the constant urging.

Indeed, I suspect that many people feel ambivalent about receiving thank-you notes also. They remind us that we haven’t written our own, or they make us feel morally inferior to the writer, or, worst of all, they make us feel morally superior because we, after all, would never rush our thank-you notes out just to prove how practically perfect we were. (Note: I got any number of thank-you-notes already, all of which were well-written and thoughtful. I enjoyed reading them all. This exception only proves that I am blessed with unusually gracious family and friends.) So, why bother?

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The Word Made Flesh

Feast of the Epiphany, 2019

Anne and I spent this holiday season in the most holy of ways – with a house joyously filled with our son and his wife, our daughter, and, for the first time, our grandson Ryan, all visiting from the north. We planned a coming out party of sorts for baby Ryan the Friday after Christmas – the 28th, as it happened to be. My mother, sister, nephews and family, and priest were all invited to come over for a viewing. As it turned out, the guest of honor was, sadly, off limits. What we thought at first was simply post-travel crankiness turned out to be the flu, nothing to sneeze at for a five-month old. Thanks be to God, after an anxious morning in the emergency room, and a satchel-full of medications, he was back to himself within thirty-six hours or so.

In any event, rocking a sick baby at 3:30 in the morning leads one to ruminate a bit, and my thoughts wandered to something our priest Laurie McKim talked about in her Christmas sermon. The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by the Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks in 1868. Brooks at the time was the rector of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, and, while enormously popular and effective, went through something like a spiritual breakdown in the aftermath of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. (Brooks preached the homily at Lincoln’s funeral, which tells us something about the esteem in which he was held.) Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land in the months after the funeral and found himself in the basilica in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. That experience provided the inspiration for the hymn.

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Word of the Year

Holy Name Day, 2019

The publisher Merriam-Webster announced last month that it had selected “justice” as the 2018 “word of the year.” The announcement said:

The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.

I agree that the question of what we mean by “justice” is relevant. I’m not sure I agree, however, that it’s always, or even usually, part of the discussion. All too often our discussions about justice are unproductive because we are talking about different things, without realizing it, in the same way that residents of Green Bay and Manchester could have a very confusing conversation about “football,” or Georgians and Texans expect very different things when they go to a “barbecue” shack.

The general theme of this blog will be law and equity: the relationship between the requirements of justice in a strictly legal sense, and how those requirements conflict with personal or communal notions of mercy, fairness, or equity. I think of this as the “Micah paradox.” In Micah 6:8, God, through the prophet Micah, tells Israel that he expects his people to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Unless justice and mercy are synonyms here (and I don’t think they are) then God has given us some very challenging advice: to be at once just and merciful, attitudes that often seem to conflict.

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