May it please the court...

"You sit up there, and you see the whole gamut of human nature. Even if the case being argued involves only a little fellow and $50, it involves justice. That's what is important."
Chief Justice Earl Warren

"We are not won by arguments that we can analyze, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself."
Associate Justice Louis Brandeis

"Now, gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!"

Atticus Finch (Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird)


I sat in the back, anxious. A young man entered from the side, wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He was followed by his attorney. The courtroom was huge and seemed to have swallowed us all in a single gulp. The bailiff stood and looked at no one in particular but at each of us, just the same. "All rise." None hesitated. Chief Judge Claire Eagan, district judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, entered quietly. Unassumingly, even. She had a kind face, but serious. The kind of face that the moment required.

The young man in chains stared at the table. He didn't seem to be angry. No proverbial chip on his shoulder. Just dejected. Embarrassed. He was ashamed of what he'd done, and he was there to change his plea from "not guilty" to "guilty," evidently as part of a plea bargain. He was owning up to his actions, but he wasn't proud of them. The time came for Judge Eagan to address the man. "Man" doesn't seem like the right word, but it is. He was 21, maybe 22. And he was healthy and muscular underneath the oversized jumpsuit. But he didn't carry himself like a man. He stood in front of the high bench, shoulders slumped, chin buttoned to his chest, like a child whose tears were teetering on the edge of his eyelids, lips tight to keep them from opening in a wail, fists clenched in an apparently Herculean effort to exert a modicum of control over something in the moment. He was barely holding himself together. These minutes would be among the most uncomfortable of the young man's life, and Judge Eagan's position in that room - both physically, raised above him on the bench, and figuratively, empowered to determine his immediate fate - posed a very real threat to him.

She saw all of this. And she had a decision to make. She could take advantage of the moment, and add to his shame, further chastising him for his offenses, humiliating him for his crimes, pushing his tears over the edge. Some would argue he deserved it. Perhaps they would be right. But he would get what he deserved in the fulfillment of his sentence, and Judge Eagan didn't seem to think part of that sentence ought to include her ridicule. She chose, instead, to recognize his remorse and distress, and to sympathize. From the back of the room, where I sat watching the ordeal unfold, it sounded like she choked back her own tears while reading the counts against him, which included charges related to drugs and firearms. After finishing her reading of the charges and attending to a few other requisite formalities, she looked up, met his eyes, and said something to let him know that he was not just another criminal, not one more item to check off of her day's to-do list, and not someone for whom she hadn't the slightest concern. "At some point, you're going to have to decide how long you want to live and how you want to live." And it was obvious that she - as a human being and as a judge - desired the best for him.

I witnessed this scene a few months ago, and it's been replaying in my mind ever since. I entered into that courtroom with a superficial intimidation of the physical space itself, but her demeanor replaced that intimidation with a reverence for the law's ability either to break a man's spirit or to recognize his inherent dignity, regardless of what he may have done. If I am to practice law with a sense of “fear and trembling,” which seems only appropriate, I would much rather it grow out of this latter mindfulness of the law’s ennobling power than the former sense of terror due to a courtroom’s illusory menace.
As a law student, I get to hear others speak often about their attitudes regarding the law and the legal system. I'm surprised at how many of my fellow aspiring lawyers appear to feel entitled to practice law and seem annoyed that they have to prove themselves in various ways, often through grades, ethics, attitude, and affect. At times, they speak as if they are not entering into a noble vocation but a common - if not disreputable - racket. Unfortunately, the sheer number of lawyer jokes would seem to confirm their inclinations.

But when I witness scenes such as the one I just described or when I hear an honorable attorney say something as simple as "May it please the court," I'm reminded that I'm doing much more than just seeking a credential. I'm certainly not asking anyone to give me the right to practice law. I'm instead requesting a great privilege. That is, I'm asking our judicial system to grant me the honor of asserting another's rights. It is incumbent upon me, then, to show appropriate deference and demeanor, not necessarily to individual legal professionals within the system who themselves may or may not be worthy of the privilege they've received, but to the offices and roles ascribed to those individuals within our system of justice. When a judge is addressed as Your Honor, it is not because the woman in the robe is worthy of the address as a matter of course - though, one would hope she is - but it is because she is a symbol of the power of our laws and judicial processes to crush and to lift up, to break and to heal, to bind and to liberate.

I hope as a law student that my aspirations and manner meet the task ahead of me. I hope, further, as an attorney that my conduct is equal to the responsibility that will be imposed upon me by justice, by history, and not least of all by every individual whose rights I will represent.

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1 Response to May it please the court...

  1. Erin says:

    Very much enjoyed reading this and hearing your thoughts on this endeavor of yours. As with most things in your life, I'm sure you'll excel.

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