Fifty years ago, I was admitted to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Now that I am in the autumn of my years or more accurately the rough-sledding years, I spend time looking back on life and the three things for which I am most grateful. They are my wife, our children, and being a lawyer.
Sure, lawyers are roundly criticized, yet the most popular books and TV shows continue to be about the legal system. I believe that much of the criticism directed toward the legal system reflects a lack of understanding. The legal system is an adversarial system. This means there will be winners and losers. The former will love us, and the latter will hate us. Does the system always work? No. Nothing is foolproof, but the American legal system has withstood the test of time and a better system has yet to be devised.
In my opinion, the two most important institutions that have safeguarded Americans’ rights have been the press and the bar. Unfortunately, the press is in big trouble. This means that the legal system is becoming the only institution that can be counted on to take on unpopular causes and to bring into the public spotlight reprehensible conduct from whatever the source.
Lawyers have always stepped into the fray regardless of how unpopular the cause may have been. I like to remind my friends in health care that when their profession was bleeding George Washington because he had a headache, my profession was drafting the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But we didn’t stop there and, fortunately, neither did medical advances.
First and foremost, we
are and will always be – if
common sense prevails – a
country of laws and not of
men and women.
When British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre were charged with crimes, who defended them? When Congress stonewalled the passage of civil rights legislation, who brought the cases that struck down Jim Crow laws? When corporations fixed prices on a host of products, who filed the lawsuits? When a president of the United States left office early, who forced his resignation? What about sexual abuse by the clergy or those individuals who have been wrongly convicted and many of whom have been exonerated through the efforts of the Innocence Project?
I believe the greatest triumph of the legal profession and what this country stands for was the 2000 national election. I say this not because of who won but because of the process. In many countries, when a hotly contested election occurs, the seat of government is often surrounded by armed soldiers, the radio and TV stations are seized, and riots occur.
During the 2000 election crises, people in the United States were armed also, but not with weapons, rocks, or fire bombs; they were armed with computers and law books. The lawyers went to court and argued the case, and a decision was rendered. When it was over, the decision was accepted despite being not welcomed by many people, no shots were fired, no one was injured, the government continued to function, and we all went about our business. This is because first and foremost, we are and will always be – if common sense prevails – a country of laws and not of men and women.
I am proud to be a lawyer and to all my fellow lawyers, I say, you, too, should be proud.
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What are one or two of the funniest or oddest experiences you’ve had in a legal context?
Two of the funniest experiences in which I was involved occurred many years ago when I was a young prosecutor.
In the first, I was sitting in the front row in a Dane County courtroom for afternoon initial appearances and arraignments waiting for my case to be called. The defendant in the case before me was charged with homicide. As he was being led back to the lockup he bolted for the courtroom door. Seeing this, I dove off my chair and tackled him, pushing him back into the old, sound-asleep bailiff who was knocked off his swivel chair to the floor underneath the defendant and me.
At that time, Bart Starr played for the Green Bay Packers and was injured. His replacement was Zeke Bratkowski. The fullback was Jim Grabowski. On the radio news that evening, the courtroom episode was recounted with the lead-in that Green Bay now had an all-Polish back field – Bratkowski, Grabowski, and Zaleski.
In the second, I had prosecuted an elected official for a variety of offenses on which he was found guilty. The court sentenced the defendant to three years in prison but stayed the sentence and placed the defendant on probation. During the court’s sentencing, the defendant passed out cold. His daughter jumped over the bar and began hitting me with her purse and screaming that I had killed her father. After she was restrained and the defendant, who was not dead, was revived, it was learned that he had not heard the part of the sentence staying the three-year jail term and placing him on probation. Poor guy thought he was heading to the slammer for three years but he wasn’t.
The least funny experience I was involved in? The most traumatizing event of my career involved the Army Math Research Center bombing (Sterling Hall). I headed up the prosecution during those days of rage. One night, at about 1 a.m., a firebomb was thrown through the front window of our house. The perpetrators were never caught. It was more than a year before I slept through the night.
Quarles & Brady LLP (retired), Milwaukee