Guardians of freedom

November 1, 2010
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Reporter Mike Hoskins wrote this post.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers."
 
That, of course, is William Shakespeare’s famous line from his play Henry VI (Part 2). The oft-quoted line is for the most part taken out of context and used to illustrate a non-lawyer's frustration with the legal system. Many know it comes from one of Shakespeare's plays, but usually there's little awareness beyond that.

In a recent Indiana Lawyer newspaper column, veteran Fort Wayne practitioner Donald D. Doxsee cited that line and added what lawyers should remind people who quote it.

“You should remind them that Shakespeare put these words into the mouth of a villain attempting to seize power illegally. Our profession stands as the guardians of the rule of law and the protector of rights,” Doxsee wrote.

It seems that Shakespeare quote is often what people think of first when the topic is “lawyer jokes.” With all the talk lately about civility and professionalism, and newly installed Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David pointing out his dislike for lawyer jokes, this topic seems timely. And appropriate.

Members of the legal profession have made this observation before, just like our friend in Fort Wayne. Now-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens even dissented on a case referring to the value of lawyers. Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 359 (1985) involved a statute adopted in 1862 limiting attorney's fees in veterans’ cases to $10.  The federal government argued that the system worked better without a lot of quarrelsome lawyers involved, but the justice made this point: "Just as I disagree with the present court's crabbed view of the concept of 'liberty,' so do I reject its apparent unawareness of the function of the independent lawyer as a guardian of our freedom."
 
He wrote a footnote pointing out, "As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government." With that, the high court justice made the point that attorneys are a protection from too much government power rather than an evil to be protected against.

Clearly, some lawyers and jurists know the context and aren’t afraid to share it. Maybe it’s time that some “lawyer jokes” be examined for the larger lessons about the profession, rather than just dismissed as a slight against those who’ve passed the bar. The public could take some lesson from this, it seems.

Any thoughts from Indiana's barristers or benchers?

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