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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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  1. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

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  3. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

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