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Hebenstreit: How Could You Not be Humbled

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IBA-hebenstreitI don’t know about you, but when I was in law school, I read the appellate cases and was impressed with, and in awe of, the entire legal system. It was a system whose foundation rested soundly on the Constitution, but had immense flexibility in its application. That was left to the advocates and ultimately to the juries and the Courts. I was proud, and humbled, to be learning how to be a part of that great system.

We were taught the importance of the rule of law. We were also taught about the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the balancing of Federal versus State interests. These are concepts that are sometimes forgotten in the day to day aspects of a busy law practice. When you were in law school did you foresee yourself handling a First Amendment case, arguing a search and seizure issue or a voting rights case? Many lawyers have never tried a jury trial and even fewer have handled an appeal. As time passes we begin to pay attention to the immediate issues facing us and the demands of our clients and families, not to mention the economics of earning a living. We slowly lose sight of the idealism and lofty concepts we thought about in law school. Sure, we still read cases, stay up on the new changes, and stay sharp in our respective areas, but do we ever stop to remember why we became a lawyer or what it means to be a lawyer?

Since May 1st was Law Day, it is probably an appropriate time to stop and think about our legal system and what it means to be a lawyer. Luckily, I was able to experience that first hand. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to travel to Chicago to observe the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Circuit Judge John Daniel Tinder invited a small group of friends with rather diverse backgrounds to observe “his world” in the Federal appellate system. It was absolutely fascinating. One member of our party (a non lawyer) commented that we were all on an adult civics class field trip—a very apt observation.

Our visit started on a Sunday with a behind the scenes look at the Dirksen Federal Building including the chambers, the Seventh Circuit Courtroom, the conference room where the Judges confer after arguments, and the Judges’ locker room. We then went to the District Courtroom where, on the following day, the second corruption trial of former Governor Blagojevich was to begin.

On Monday morning the streets outside the Federal Building were jammed with mobile television trucks, and the lobby was crowded with network television camera crews. We did get a glimpse of the defendant on his way to Court. In the long corridor on the 25th floor there was a sign identifying the area as the location of the trial of the United States of America v Blagojevich. I can’t imagine how one feels walking down that corridor on the way to opening statements in a proceeding that could cost you your freedom. But it was also comforting to know that he, unlike alleged corrupt officials in other countries, has the benefit of a sound legal system, a jury, and the right of appeal to insure that the system works and that he receives the fairest result possible. All those ideals that they taught us in law school were present.

I have not been privileged enough to actually argue before the Seventh Circuit, and it was truly awe inspiring to be seated in that impressive Courtroom. Silently waiting for the session to begin, I could only imagine the level of angst, nerves, and adrenaline those appellate counsel must have been experiencing. Then the panel entered the Courtroom. It felt important because it is.

There were six cases to be argued that morning. One dealt with systemic organizational changes the Girl Scouts of America wanted to implement and the injunctive challenge of one of their Wisconsin councils. Another case dealt with the propriety of confiscating passports of citizens stemming from a collections case. Another was an immigration matter. One case involved the refusal of Great Britain to extradite a Nigerian to the US to stand trial for crimes against Americans in our Circuit. It dawned on me that these were not the typical cases heard in the courtrooms of the City County Building. These cases involved deep legal issues with impact beyond that of the individual parties to the litigation. It was fascinating and thought provoking, not just to the lawyers in the crowd but to the non lawyers as well.

Our group caucused after the arguments. We critiqued the attorneys and made our prognostications about the outcome of each case. All of us were impressed at the depth of knowledge the panel exhibited about the cases--the facts, the record and the legal precedent. Once the opinions are issued, we will know if we saw the cases in the same way the panel did, but it was a most impressive experience.

Although we occasionally get distracted by the nuts and bolts of actually practicing law, it is clear that the system we learned about in law school is working very well. It made me proud to be a lawyer and to be a small part of that system.•

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