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What it meant to be a lawyer

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I'll be 73 on Jesus' birthday (but that's another story). So I recently began to reflect on my long life.

After successfully trying another civil rights case recently, I had mixed feelings. It was a personal win for my clients, while the fundamental civil and human rights issues of our time remain in jeopardy. Why do I say that?

It all started for me with Mr. Herbert, who had to change his name to live where I did in 1940. I asked my parents what was our name before we had to change it to live where we did. They said we didn't, but Mr. Herbert was Jewish and Jews and other minorities could not buy a house in Berkley Park, N.Y.

A year later, we were at war, presumably to end discrimination of a more serious kind while it still continued in my own "back yard." But there was hope. Even at that young age, I believed that after the war, it would all be different. The winning superpowers would submit themselves to international law and organizations, creating the United Nations and strengthening the International Court of Justice and the rule of law. No longer would powerful nations be able to arbitrarily circumvent the will of the community of nations and the justice of equal treatment for all persons.

These ideals, and a desire to help establish the rule of law, brought me to law school after completing my three years of military service overseas. It was a fine thing then to study law, be a government servant and pursue justice. And for a while it really was so. We got through the Cold War with a minimally effective world legal order and a viable United Nations.

But times have changed, haven't they? Now, we are back to one superpower, where might again is replacing right with preventive war, pre-emptive strikes, racial stereotyping, indefinite detention without arrest or charges and the deterioration of due process of law. These rights are primarily threatened by one man, one law, and one power -- Osama bin Laden, the PATRIOT Act (our response to him), concentration camps and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by our very own superpower.

As the rule of law deteriorated, lawyer bashing has proved an immensely effective weapon of the superpower and corporations who wish to impose their will over the ordinary citizen, dependent upon good lawyers to bring civil suits and defend criminal cases for them. These so-called "trial lawyers" pose a threat to their power. So they try to turn public opinion against them.

All professions have their "bad guys." But lawyers don't bring lawsuits, people do; lawyers don't decide cases, judges do. And without a viable government, law and legal profession we probably would not have had the Bill of Rights, constitutional and international law, and the United Nations in the first place.

Somewhere along the way my religious principles took hold of me and I became a radical Christian pacifist. By pacifism I mean one who forbears violence as a means of social change or defense as Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day did. King said that America should at least be true to what it says on paper and that certainly refers to the preservation of our constitutional rights and liberties, 800 years in the making, and to defend ourselves only when under imminent threat of danger and attack. But now it seems we have been am-Bushed!

So, it's come full circle. My children and grandchildren are the ones who will be most affected in the future. The superpower is not Nazi Germany and the discrimination is not anti-Semitism. We are the superpower and we want to make "our back yard" free of other minorities while we abuse the precious rights of freedom we ourselves once created and which I thought were guaranteed to us, to others among us, and to our future generations after World War II. Mr. Herbert would no longer be welcome in Berkley Park, if this empire building is allowed to continue.

In the name of religion and super-patriotism, Hitler tried to build an empire not subject to the rule of law. Aren't we on the same path in the Middle East and here at home? I wish Mr. Herbert were still around; I'd ask him. I think I know what he would say.

Bill Durland is a teacher, an attorney and director of the Center on Law and Human Rights. He lives with his wife, Genie, in Colorado Springs.


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