Judge’s side of the bench

Am I alone in wondering how it would be if somehow my long ago Philadelphia neighbors could be exhumed? Why such a thought? It would be so that I could thank them.

I would say thank you for calling me Portia before there were any Portias in that part of town and before I had ever heard the name Shakespeare. I would most of all say thank you for not laughing at a seven-year-old who said quite forcefully and quite often that someday she would be a lawyer.

Lawyers. We are members of a profession that has gone through a myriad of difficult changes in the last, let us say, 32 years. I use that number as a benchmark, for this year marks my 32nd year on the bench. But there are constants. One is that we are part of an honorable profession, notwithstanding the fact that we are perennially held in disrepute. Read the newspapers. Listen to the radio. Read Shakespeare.

The law and our freedoms are inextricably bound. Indeed, tyrants dispose of the law as their first act (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”—Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2, 71-78). I became a lawyer because instead of bedtime stories, my father of blessed memory would explain to me that if the laws had been upheld in Europe, we would not have had to flee, and our family and friends would not have met the tragic, dreadful end that was theirs. I was taught always that lawyers were the guardians of the law, and thus that lawyers were noble. And when we act as guardians of the law, we perform noble tasks. It sounds lofty, but it is a very basic truth.

The law evolves. It lives. And we are all intelligent enough to know that the law is not a creature of even near perfection. Neither are lawyers. Nor are judges. There is an ongoing parade and process.

We lawyers and judges are so fortunate to have enshrined in our governing documents the understanding that it is in our own best interest to live ethical and moral lives, to practice our craft ethically and morally, and to trust in the power of decency.

Life after all is a series of days in which we try to do our best. We are people who must, if we are to live successful lives, learn the arts of compromise and empathy and compassion. Each one of us has seen injustice in both its smallest and its largest incarnations.

As lawyers, as judges, we have a duty never to remain silent in the face of what we perceive as unjust. Since its inception, the members of the Decalogue Society as a group have tried to live up to that duty. Above all, let us never forget that proud tradition.

This article previously appeared in the newsletter of the Decalogue Society and is reprinted with permission.

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September 2016Volume 47Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)