Saturday, February 19, 2005

Liberty and Justice for All?

There are times that I realize things about myself that seemed obvious before but simply had not been put into any kind of conscious order. This past week I've been dealing with the realizations that I'm probably not much of a Southerner despite my familial pedigree (Floridians really don't count much as Southerners in the long run, something happens at the St. Mary's River I just can't explain but it definitely winnows out the Rebel from the Buffet Parrothead). The other realization is that, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really am a lawyer at heart (assuming such a combination is not by definition a contradiction in terms).

Mind you, this is quite a confession I am making. I tell people regularly that the happiest day of my life was the day I stopped practicing law, a line I stole from my fellow seminarian entering classmate, Phillip Jackson (there were three ex-lawyers in our entering class who represented 10% of the whole class, a percentage I saw as generally expectable among seminarians). In many ways, I was poorly suited to law, a native iNtuitive Feeler Perceiver (NFP) in a highly Thinking and Judging profession. I went into law school with the notion that I would be working for justice, learned my first year that the law was a jealous mistress, and spent the next nine years after admission to the bar figuring out that I was poorly placed in a profession that didn't care what was just or how human societies would be best served, just make sure you're at pre-trials on time with the requisite files.

At the wedding at which I officiated today, I got a chance to talk with the bride's father, a high powered lawyer originally from South Carolina who now practices corporate law with some of the best known firms in Orlando. I remembered almost immediately why I hated practicing law - the competition, the posturing, the "who do you know" one-upmanship. Even as the father of the bride began loosening up over his Scotches, the jugular mode was still in full force: "Where did you go to law school? UF? Oh." "Where did you serve in a parish? FSU Chapel? Oh." G-d save me from yuppie Southern lawyers.

But G-d *did* save me from the practice of law. The "calling" to be a priest (now, G-d, what was *that* all about?) allowed me a plausible out as I left behind the world of game playing professionals who constantly worried about who had the biggest dick and how we could observe that in the way one practiced. I was able to walk away from law after eight years, and few colleagues even questioned my judgment other than my father whose wished-for law career I embodied and the sincere, well-intentioned fellow assistant public defender who asked me "But, Harry, if you leave, who will care about the kids the way you do?"

I've never regretted leaving the practice of law. I know I'm a happier and healthier person for that decision and, frankly, I had to work against my natural inclinations the whole time I practiced. I tell my students that they need to be sure they want to put up with the pain that law school and legal practice entail and I readily lay out for them my observations. But if they still want to go, I write them letters of recommendation. So, I’m not prone to engage in a mindless cynicism which begins with Shakespeare's quotation taken totally out of context "First, we kill all the lawyers." Rather, I'm just glad to have realized when I did that I was poorly placed in the field of law and had the opportunity to escape with minimal economic damage.

That being said, I've found myself the past couple of weeks feeling a sense of absolute despair about America. While the Bush administration promises to provide one depressing saga after another in every arena from the planet's health to the probable dismantling of social security,
it's the appointments to legal positions that have managed to once more wrench my guts and make me wonder how this could happen in an America I once believed in.

Certainly John Ashcroft was an embarrassment. A fundamentalist who pressured his staff into daily prayer meetings and a demonstrated puritanical aversion to human nudity causing him to have Victory covered up because her bare breast might incite sexual feelings in whoever was watching the press events with the statue in the background, Ashcroft was at some level predictable. He satisfied the religious right whom the Bushies demagogue into voting against their financial interests. And he got the US government off Bill Gate's tail long enough to "settle" that case (read: hand it to Bill on a silver platter).

But the past two weeks have brought news of Alberto Gonzalez' confirmation as Attorney General and John Negroponte's confirmation as our first "intelligence czar." Gonzalez is the one who suggested that the Geneva Convention is "quaint" and wrote the legal memos which convinced the Bushies to conduct torture-driven interrogations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. Negroponte is the godfather of Central American terror imposed upon all the non-submissive Central American "protectorates" during the Reagan years. I've seen Negroponte's work in El Salvador and Panama. I know how to say "human suffering" in working poor Spanish. The word is "Negroponte."

What astounds me is that I find myself still clinging to perhaps romantic notions that the US government still could believe in "liberty and justice for all." What astounds me is that I apparently still can be shocked when the rights of the accused guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is denied political prisoners we have deemed "enemy combatants" or any other semantic way of saying "We don't plan to follow our own law."

Years ago I went to law school believing that I was there to fight for justice. And I did, for years after I should have figured out that I was really misplaced in the practice of law. What surprises me today is that I still have those ideals, albeit largely tarnished by the cynicism of post-Bush election realism. I find it surprising I am still able to be shocked by the confirmation of terrorists to positions of legal power. I'm still able to feel despair over the complete failure of justice in the face of legal power personified in people like Gonzalez and Negroponte.

I guess at some level I should be glad that I can still be shocked. My feelings of depression suggest that I am still able to be angry about injustice, even if it is largely directed inside these days. At the same time, I wonder aloud: where are we going as a people? I look at the history of the Third Reich and the creeping normalization of terror and fascism and worry mightily as my own country exhibits those signs.

Maybe I really did believe the things I said in my oath of office to the Florida and Southern District (federal) Courts of Florida: that I would defend the Constitution of the United States of America so help me G-d. Maybe I continue to believe in that fleeting possibility that "liberty and justice for all" will be the mark of the American legal system and not the anomaly. Maybe the notion that terror, prison abuse, lack of legal counsel and a fair trial are not the American way even as our nation finds Orwellian disingenuous labels to rationalize wrong doing.

I don't know what has caused my discomfort this night. But I do find myself feeling a sense of gratitude to those who instilled in me a value for American legal and constitutional ideals, for those who encouraged me to seek the living into of those ideals and for those who to this day stand with me as I enter once more the prophet mode, railing against the actual holding up against that performance the ideal I still believe should be the rule and not the exception. Will it make a difference? G-d only knows and this night, she ain't tellin'!


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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