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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Of music and the Supreme Court ... by Joe Wilkins

 Of music and the Supreme Court ... by Joe Wilkins

Of music and the Supreme Court ...
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away,
Across the wide Missouri.

The fading strains of "Shenandoah," that most nostalgic of American folk anthems, followed me down the marble stairs, holding me in a dry spell that I paused on a nearby marble bench to savor the last, sweet notes from the chorale brought in for the affair. In the great entrance hall that leads to the most famous courtroom in the world several hundred elegantly  dressed guests lingered over their coffee, caught in the same spell and reluctant to let the dinner  or the moment end. The voices of the Master Singers of Virginia sounded as pure as the white marble columns of the Court itself.  My host Norman Reimer, a lawyer-leader of the National Bar whose organization has  long championed the rights of defendants, had invited me to join him at the black-tie celebratory dinner marking the 38th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society. It seemed  appropriate. This year marks my own 38th anniversary of being sworn in as a Member of the Bar of the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who founded the society that same year.

The week itself also marked my 45th anniversary of graduation from law school in  Washington, where at the urging of my favorite law professor, I had often spent stolen hours at  the Court listening to arguments and decisions, including the case of Clarence Gideon, a Florida, uneducated rustic who had been convicted and sentenced to prison and hand-wrote an appeal to the Highest Court in the land. Assigned free representation there by prominent Washington lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, he won a unanimous decision  announcing the right of an accused citizen to have a lawyer even if he was so poor the state would have to bear the cost. By luck I had been there when the case was argued in January of  1963 and again when the decision was read from the bench in March, and that case has stood like a brilliant lighthouse on the stormy coast of American justice ever since, and one we host,  sometime winner of the prestigious Gideon award, had spent his professional career vigorously  championing.

As a law student in Washington and an editor of our legal newspaper and of the Law Review I had a romantic view of the Court, and wrote a column enthusing about it as the great  hope of America, which brought a certain amount of hoo-rah from my fellow students. Now,  however, I am of an age with most of the Justices, and inclined to judge them by my own experiences and philosophy. Of late, I had lost hope in the Court, seeing it as a trophy seized by  the political Right. Most of all the Supreme Court decision insuring the Presidency of George W. Bush had dimmed my rosy-tinged views.

Like most lawyers, I have never argued a case before the Supreme Court, although I  came close to it twice. But almost a half-century of lawyering shapes one's views about the Court. And having served at the farthermost and lowest end of the judicial spectrum as a humble municipal judge on an island having only six bars and two traffic lights, I confess to a certain skepticism about my more distinguished brethern. 

I came to the law when the unanimity of the Court served to support great American principles, like the pedestal under the Statue of Liberty. Nowadays every precedent stands on the shifting sand dunes of a 5 to 4 decision one way or the  other, waiting for mortality and the next political hurricane to sweep it away. Most of the Justices were present at the dinner. I shook hands with Justice Scalia,  probably the man whose opinions I differ with the most, although courtesy sealed my lips and, I suspect, he could not have cared less had he known. Still, he had done a good thing that day, for which I was proud to shake his hand. He had joined the 4 end of one of those infamous 5 to 4  decisions, linking himself with the three liberal Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan to  damn and blast the majority for letting the cops grab a DNA sample from those arrested for a  serious offense, However "serious" may come to be defined.

The building in which the Court sits with a marble mausoleum designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert. My friend Norman Reimer admires it as a classic temple forever representing the  nobility and aspirations of the law he has served so long. I see the law as a less cold temple and more as an Italian meal, which should nourish and comfort and inspire feelings of trust and hope.

We are both right about the law, but on the architecture I side with that Justice, who was sitting when the present structure was first built, quipped that he and the other black-robed  justices would look, in that dazzling white marble building, "like nine black beetles in the  Temple of Karnak." But the evening served to revive my youthful idealism about the Court. As I listened to  "Shenandoah" drift through the marble halls, I felt it carried with it the home truth of America  and of the Supreme Court; American justice is neither architecture nor lawbooks, but a matter of  the spirit, which may suffer setbacks now and then, but can never be quenched nor long  suppressed.
Copyright Joseph T. Wilkins.  


Joe Wilkins  is a semi-retired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville, NJ. He is the author of   "The Speaker Who Locked up the House" , an acclaimed historical novel about  Congress set in the Washington of 1890, and  "The Skin Game and other Atlantic City Capers" , a richly comic account of the stick-up of an illegal card game as the Atlantic City casino age began. To buy Joe's books, invite him to talk to your group, or send him your comments, you can email him at,  visit his website at  or catch his author's page on Facebook.

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