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. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.