Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
I am the only lawyer in my family. That’s important to my story because – as you’ll read in a minute – my thinking about the legal system, especially the criminal justice system, was largely shaped by popular culture. I grew up believing that as long as you did the right thing, you’d never be in trouble. I thought that folks who ended up in jail clearly did something wrong. I thought that justice was blind to race, gender, and economics. I now know that’s not the case.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement, was on the receiving end of repeated harassment by tax authorities. Inquiries into Dr. King’s finances were not new: He was investigated in two separate states (Georgia and Alabama) on numerous occasions and together with his legal team and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), Dr. King was repeatedly investigated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
It was clear to many of his supporters that Dr. King was targeted because of the color of his skin and the words that he dared to speak about inequality. In 1960, he made news as the first person ever criminally charged in the state of Alabama on tax fraud (you can read the statement issued “Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr.” accusing the state of Alabama of falsely distorting Dr. King’s 1958 income tax return in an attempt to indict him here).
After his indictment, Dr. King was asked by a reporter, “Have your income tax returns been investigated before?” He replied, “Oh yes, they have been investigated two or three times before. This is nothing new.” The case would eventually go to trial.
On today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as I always do, I am re-posting an article, without edits, that I wrote years ago about that trial and the legal profession. You might have seen it before: it remains one of my favorite posts to this day. It reminds me of how important it is to continually seek out justice. I hope you enjoy it.
I’ll be frank. I don’t always love being a lawyer.
When I was a little girl, I used to watch Perry Mason with my grandfather on TBS. That constituted my entire legal experience before entering law school. And it was flawed.
You see, on TV, none of the lawyers lied to Perry Mason over the phone about being amenable to a continuance and then told the Clerk of Court differently. Nobody faxed Perry Mason a witness list the day before a hearing along with evidence that they “forgot” to send prior. A lawyer didn’t claim proper service on Perry Mason and then fail to deliver the notices to his law offices. You never saw a lawyer represent clients who had sent Perry Mason death threats via email in an attempt to assert that Mr. Mason was the one being unreasonable. You didn’t see cases drag on for years and years (yes, plural) because counsel just couldn’t get it together enough to resolve the matter. On TV, no matter how dire, how dramatic, there was ultimately justice.
The law is supposed to be about justice, about finding the truth. And increasingly it feels like it’s not. It’s more about touting your wares, putting yourself on commercials during daytime television standing in front of legal books shouting about maximizing money, about doing anything to get paid. And that is sad.
A few months ago, I attended a hearing that made me question my role in the law. You’re probably assuming that the hearing somehow didn’t go well. That isn’t true. It went remarkably well. Our client was an excellent witness. The judge was fair and very accommodating. We walked out of the hearing knowing that we had done a good job. The thing was, I felt relieved that it was over. I was happy for my clients. But I wasn’t happy for me. Truth be told, I hated every minute of preparing for the case. Well, not every minute. The theory, the strategy? That I didn’t mind. Our strategy was simply to tell our story. And we somehow felt that should be enough. In the end, I think it was.
But the getting there? The games? The complete lack of professionalism exhibited by opposing counsel? Lying about continuances? Surprise witnesses? Last-minute evidence? Maybe that seems exciting on TV, but in real life, it’s not exciting. It’s sickening. It’s stressful. It’s not fair to good lawyers who spend their time crafting a case. It’s not fair to clients who don’t know what to expect in the courtroom. And yet somehow, month after month, this behavior doesn’t seem so unusual.
And as opposing counsel sat in her chair in her too-tight blouse with the clickety-click of her little heels on the floor, the same counsel who called my clients’ claims frivolous, the same counsel whose supervising partner at Big Law Firm once commented to me that she didn’t understand why a small firm like mine would go up against a big firm like hers, I thought about why we were all at that place, how it all happened that we were in the same room believing two different versions of the truth. I couldn’t explain it.
Later that same day, while reaching for my Moscow Mule (yes, my favorite cocktail du jour, even before Rachael Ray put it in her magazine last month – grr) at the Union League, I understood why the partner at my former firm kept a bottle of wine in his desk: the pressure of being a lawyer, the pressure of having to win, it’s a lot to take in. And while other professions can often look to each other for reassurance, we don’t really have that in the legal profession with few exceptions. It is, by its very nature, adversarial. It is competitive. It is cutthroat. And me? I am not. Of course, I like to win. I like to think that I am good at it. And then maybe I think that’s not something to be particularly proud of.
So, over the past few weeks, which have been professionally difficult, I have tried to remember why it is exactly that I became a lawyer – and what about it I used to love. And I was reminded of my favorite scene in the movie Philadelphia. The one where Andrew Beckett sums up what’s actually good about the law:
Joe Miller: What do you love about the law, Andrew?
Andrew Beckett: I… many things… uh… uh… What I love the most about the law?
Joe Miller: Yeah.
Andrew Beckett: It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.
And so I tried to think of when that happened last – when justice was actually done. Not when I won a case or when I got a client out of trouble – that happens often enough. But remember, winning and justice aren’t the same thing. I had to think for a while.
Later, I was preparing to write a post about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I figured I’d just put up a copy of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech and call it a day. But as I researched, I found part of his autobiography which, I will confess, I had never read in full. And I saw something interesting: I knew that Dr. King had been arrested several times for various accusations, but I didn’t realize that he had been on trial for tax evasion.
Yep. On February 17, 1960, a warrant was issued for the arrest of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on charges of tax evasion. He was accused of allegedly falsifying his Alabama income tax returns for the years 1956 and 1958; he was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury statute. It seemed like an inevitable victory for the government.
In his autobiography, Dr. King described the trial like this:
This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York.
And something quite remarkable happened. On May 28, 1960, only after a few hours, Dr. King was acquitted by an all-white jury in Montgomery, Alabama (statement downloads as a PDF).
Dr. King said about his trial:
I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.
And it dawned on me: no matter how many slick-haired, silver-tongued attorneys do their best to make a quick buck at the expense of the reputation of the profession, you can’t dispute that justice is attainable. And justice is good. And justice is important. And even if it is infrequent, it’s worth it when it happens.