Our Better Angels

Our Better Angels“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This message of President Lincoln, like so many of his words, resonate today as they did in his day. Perhaps you re-visited this in viewing “Lincoln,” a terrific movie based on a terrific book. Much of the book is spent discussing the lives of nineteenth-century lawyers and their fraternity-like relationship. It’s a sense of kinship that we try to recreate in our own bar association meetings today.

Times have changed, or at least, it seems like they have. It is far more difficult to find a unifying characteristic among American lawyers now than it was one hundred and fifty years ago.

Not only is it difficult for us to find a unifying characteristic among our profession, it’s also often difficult to find something positive in our profession to rally around. We suffer under a constant stream of negative media coverage and second-guessing of our choice in profession. And as the Lawyers’ Assistance Program can tell us, we suffer from some of the highest rates of addiction and depression of any profession. I’m not saying we need a cheerleader, but the life of an attorney can be a stressful and difficult one. And a lonely one as well.

So it’s nice to hear about something that all lawyers everywhere can celebrate together. Something that reminds us that despite our many differences – personally, professionally, politically – we are at heart a noble profession that strives for justice to prevail. And that time is today.

Today we celebrate one of the greatest achievements in American jurisprudence – Gideon v. Wainwright. Fifty years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court held that every person prosecuted for a felony has a right to an attorney. It is a notable achievement of which we should all be proud. This is something to celebrate. Access to justice is codified in that decision.

But implementation is not so perfect. Most articles and posts you’ll ready about Gideon today will talk about how the promise of Gideon remains elusive. See here, and here, and here. And their lesson is, no matter how great the decision, or the law, or the Constitution, implementation of those principles is key to effecting the change memorialized in the documents. We have a lot more work to do in making sure that people receive the representation that Gideon proclaimed our right 50 years ago.

Yet Gideon stands as a shining example of what President Lincoln once called “the better angels of our nature.” On March 18, 1963, the legal system achieved something that fundamentally changed the course of justice for all Americans. But let’s take a moment and celebrate what we accomplished – that fifty years ago today, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the better angels of our nature, and we let them prevail.

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