Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Word of Law Filtered Through the Great-Grandson

In the past two days, I have finished Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis, about the Supreme Court case in 1963 that led to legal representation for those who can't afford an attorney. I've been inspired by John Houseman's wonderfully modest performance as Earl Warren in the TV movie adaptation, enough to want to read about Warren's life, hoping he was really that way (In the one scene that inspired me, Warren walks into the room where his clerks are and calls out, "Ken?" Arthur, one of his other clerks, rises and says, "Mr. Chief Justice," and so does another clerk, besides Ken too, and Warren says, "Don't stand up, don't stand up."). And I've just finished Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court by Sandra Day O'Connor. I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any desire to become one.

And yet, I am interested in the Supreme Court, in the federal courts, and in some of the lower courts, including my Nevada Supreme Court and my former Florida Supreme Court, as well as other courts extant in both states. A couple years ago in Southern California, when my father went to court to get the spelling of his name legally changed to ward off problems brought on by a criminal with the same name as him, including the no-fly list and a few financial issues, there were two cases ahead of him in the courtroom we were in, and I was fascinated by the procedures, so absorbed in them.

This is all due to my late maternal great-grandfather, Zeide as I knew him, who was a lawyer, as I learned from my mom when I grew up. She also told me that when I was a baby, he used to have me on his lap while he watched his beloved boxing matches on TV. This may be what led to me writing recaps of fantasy boxing matches for a website I've long forgotten, in the early days of the Internet, or my early days of it anyway. I'm not sure if his love of boxing inspired me to take that on, or if it was deep in the back of my mind and clanged when I found that opportunity, but I think it might be in my genes because I don't remember thinking about it at all when I found it. I haven't been interested in boxing since, though. I think it only cropped up that one time to gauge my interest and then disappeared.

According to Mom, who I believe because it sounded like Zeide had a caring nature and I strive to emulate that on top of my own, he was a devoted, honest lawyer who wanted what his clients wanted and worked his hardest to seek that particular outcome for them, whatever it might have been. He also had an extensive law library in the house where my mom grew up (she was raised by him and her grandmother, my great-grandmother of course, who I also unfortunately don't remember), and in fact, a year and a half ago, I ordered United States Reports Vol. 515 from the Government Printing Office, which had a low price of, well, I want to say $7.50, but it may have been slightly higher. But being on sale at that price, for 1,323 pages, I wanted to see what one of these volumes looked like, and to read it too. The full title is Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court at October Term, 1994. This was back when William H. Rehnquist was Chief Justice and John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter, one of my favorite justices, were on the Court. When Mom saw it, she said, "I saw those in Zeide's library!"

My love of presidential history naturally includes forays into Congress and the Supreme Court, because all the branches of government interact. So of course I'd read about those battles and those rarest of rare Kumbaya moments, but being most passionate about the presidency, why would I explore the Supreme Court beyond what I read about it within the presidency?

It had to be in my genes once again. Otherwise, why would I go there when there's the White House, Air Force One, the Oval Office, the White House movie theater, foreign policy decisions, domestic policy, and so much else to explore that may well take the rest of my life?

It wasn't only Zeide's influence, most likely from his genes reaching through my mom to me. Here's the presidency, big and at times boisterous, facing the world head-on. Here's Congress, mostly boisterous. And then here's the Supreme Court, which, while it decides cases of potentially historical stature, seems so quiet. The justices do their work quietly. There are no cameras allowed during arguments in the courtroom. There are only transcripts and audio after the cases are argued, and then there are the written opinions released after they, or portions of them, have been read from the bench. In short, it's the perfect place for me.

The Supreme Court reminds me of my beloved libraries. In books at least, I can explore any aspect of them I want to, and I can have a fine, quiet, peaceful time while doing so. I visit SCOTUSblog every day to see what's going on at the Court and to find links to commentaries and concise, open explanation about that activity, as well as be surprised by some of the books coming out about the Court that I hadn't heard of before. That's how I found out about The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution by Marcia Coyle, which I of course ordered. I want to read it and I don't want to wait for my local library to get it in, not least because I'm not sure how often I'm going to be able to use the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District after we move, at least before I get a car, being that the few libraries in Henderson are all run by Henderson Libraries, totally separate from the LVCCLD. That doesn't mean you can't use both library cards. Wherever you live, you can get a Henderson library card if you want, but you can only obviously use it at the Henderson libraries. And I don't know how many holds I can expect for The Roberts Court. The listing in the LVCCLD catalog shows that there are four copies ordered for the entire district, but no holds so far. Even so, even after the book is released, it still takes time for the book to get to the district and then be processed and fitted with a barcode and then to be sent from the central location where books are processed, wherever that is, to be sent to those libraries, or to be sent from there to fulfill any requests at other libraries, which may well have been mine, but you see why I don't want to wait. It's about the Supreme Court. I don't want to wait. Some books I just have to have right away.

I am flummoxed by many of the legal theories posed in the books I read, and in the technical details of many of the cases presented to the Supreme Court, but that doesn't stop me. Nor does it stop my curiosity about the federal courts and the lower courts. Plus, I'm also interested in the writing quality of the Supreme Court justices, including the justices on the Nevada Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court. I've read a few of those opinions. Good so far, but some of them get tangled up in their legal vines. (I hate saying it like that, but it's true in some cases.) But the ruling stands, and that's what matters most in these courts.

I don't expect to be a legal expert, but remembering my experience waiting in that courtoom for my dad's name change, and my grandfather apparently doing much good in the law, I like reading about all of this. It's not only those, though. I love the silence to think while I read, to learn more about these laws, undoubtedly with less pressure than law school students go through, which is why learning it this way is for me and why I don't want to attend college again. I don't like classrooms and scheduled times to learn. Give me my books and I'll learn it. I'm happiest learning on my own, just like the Supreme Court justices do that sometimes-momentous work on their own. No influences, supposedly. No outside noise, well, not that they can hear in chambers. No interruptions. It's another library for me. I can spend years in here, and I will. I don't know if my grandfather actually read all those books in his law library, but I've a feeling he did. I'm sure the curiosity he had toward the law is the same curiosity I have. That's the only way to explain it. I'm not doing it for him, but I'm proud to follow him in that respect.


  1. People make a lot of nasty jokes about lawyers, but a good lawyer is worth his weight in gold.


    1. My mom told me today that he also bought groceries for those who couldn't afford them. He could have been very wealthy, but chose to help others. That's why I hope to be as good and kind toward others as he was.