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In Memory of Moses Harrison: Here lies the Champion of Liberty

By John J. Hopkins, John J. Hopkins & Associates, Alton

Jonathan Swift, the famed English satirist and political philosopher of the 18th Century, died in 1745.  As a final commentary, the acclaimed author of such works as “Gulliver’s Travels” left carved on his tombstone a fitting epitaph.  In Latin, it says, “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift… where fierce indignation can no longer injure the Heart… Go forth voyager and copy, if you can, this vigorous Champion of Liberty.”

I was reminded of Dr. Swift’s final words when I heard the news that a contemporary   “Champion of Liberty” had passed on through this world.  The Honorable Moses Harrison, late Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, died on Thursday, April 25at Missouri Baptist Hospital in St. Louis.   In respect for the lifetime of service to his fellow man, the first SIDEBAR column of 2013 is dedicated to his memory, both his remarkable professional accomplishments but also very fond remembrances of a towering legal figure who remained – despite the seductions of power – a devoted husband and father, active volunteer and loyal friend.

While THIS Moses certainly did ascend to the Judicial mountain top, he never lost his connection to what he liked to call “the real folks.” As he often would tell, in his career he worked as a ranch hand, a truck driver and a Teamster, grounding him in reality and earning in the words of the Illinois Supreme Court in 2002, on the occasion of his retirement the “reputation for commitment to justice and human welfare, to defend the poor, the young and elderly against corporate or governmental policies which went against their interests.”

In his practice as a lawyer – something about which he was always proud – he never worked for the prosecution or for corporate interests, but instead, as he unashamedly would project he instead represented “panderers, pimps and prostitutes” in East St. Louis, imparting in the process an empathy that he never lost.  He served his profession through service as President of the Madison County Bar Association and on the Board of Governors of the Illinois State Bar Association, both positions elected by his peers. Despite the demands of his office, Justice Harrison also found the time to serve his faith by service to Episcopal churches in both his native Collinsville and adopted home town of O Fallon, Illinois.

While Justice Harrison’s well publicized – and ultimately successful – opposition to capital punishment in Illinois brought the bright lights and recognition of “60 Minutes” fame, it is his dissent in First Springfield Bank v. ADM that captures in full what Jonathan Swift called “the fierce indignation of the heart.” A young girl, visiting from France, was struck and killed on the streets in Springfield. Liability was found against ADM in both the trial and lower Appellate Court for among other matters, having a truck parked illegally. The victory was temporary; ultimately to be reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

In his stinging dissent, the normally polite- to- the extreme Justice Harrison pulled no punches in what he perceived as the lost legal legacy of the majority opinion.

“The majority position stems, I think, from an antiquated and misguided deference to the demands of private industry.  Unlike my colleagues, I do not believe that corporate enterprise must be given precedence over human welfare in order to flourish. If the success of Illinois commerce depends on enabling multinational corporations to maim and kill school children with impunity, then we are lost….For the foregoing reasons, I therefore dissent.”

The simple eloquence of the righteous man.

Like most lawyers of a certain age, I appeared before Justice Harrison. Sometimes I left satisfied and happy; other times, not so much. But always I knew that the case and arguments would be treated with dignity and respect, to the point of oral arguments stopped by, “Excuse me Counselor, I do not mean to interrupt, but….” followed by questions that politely but firmly exposed the weaknesses in your position.

But like so many others, I was blessed to get to know Justice Harrison on a more personal level.  In 2001, I was the Chairman of a committee of the Bar Association that was charged with the task of drafting, then getting approved, recommendations to the Supreme Court on mandatory legal malpractice insurance for all lawyers practicing in Illinois.

While the benefit of such for the public may have been obvious, the matter was still contested.  It passed nevertheless, and we had no stronger champion than Moses Harrison. We traveled to Chicago several times for hearings, where he most graciously gave of his time and prestige to the project. In the end, insurance was rejected by the Court, replaced by hours of continuing legal education, a system which Justice Harrison sagely and correctly predicted would lead to manipulation by all concerned.

But from the ashes of such a failed attempt, a bond of friendship was forged. Justice and Mrs. Harrison honored us with their presence in our home on several delightful and very unpretentious visits, a memory that we shall treasure.

The heart of the champion of working people now lies still, his eternal reward but assured for a life well and truly lived. It is an example from a different kind of “Moses,” but still a pathway through the wilderness of indifference and apathy. We need only follow in his memory.  Be not afraid…

Posted on June 26, 2013 by Chris Bonjean