Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Will You Ever Be in a Courtroom? Probably

My favorite television drama is "Law and Order". It is encouraging to see a complicated legal problem resolved in the space of one hour. Of course, this is a fantasized image of our legal system, but one hour of escape from reality feels good now and then.

When I was a child growing up in rural South Alabama during the Depression, the radio was our primary source of information, education, and inspiration. We listened each week to a radio drama titled "Mr. District Attorney". I was impressed by ability of the law to act as a force for justice. I never met a lawyer until I was a grown man, but I idealized the legal profession, and hoped and prayed I might some day become an attorney. A series of events in my life, too complicated to explain in a column, interrupted this career plan and I ended up in the ministry. But I have never lost my love for the law, and I often think of my sermon as a closing argument given in a church rather than a courtroom.

My wise wife has always taken a dim view of my trying to live out my early professional ambitions through our children and grandchildren. While I agree with this counsel in principle, I have not followed it altogether in practice. I confess that I have dropped some subtle (sometimes not too subtle) hints to children and grandchildren about my preferred choice of their profession. I tried to influence my son to study law, but no luck. You cannot imagine my delight when my oldest granddaughter announced recently that she had been accepted to the University of Alabama Law School.

The ratio of lawyers to the population is greater in America than any other country. We have become the most litigious people in the world, and our lawyers are the brunt of many jokes and criticisms. Some of the criticism is well founded, some is not. Although you might enjoy attorney-bashing with friends, your tone will quickly change if you are wrongly accused of a crime, seriously injured in an accident, find yourself facing some complex civil litigation, etc. Perhaps reluctantly, perhaps silently, you will concede for that moment you actually need a good lawyer. Unfortunately, there is a TV drama inspired attitude on the part of many that if you need an attorney, you should hire the meanest badest lawyer out there, one whose demeanor is like that of a slobbering, lunging dog on a short leash. Judges tell me that the effectiveness of your attorney will be determined by clear, insightful, and accurate presentation of the law and facts. Aggression for hire doesn't impress the Judge or allow the attorney to introduce one iota more of fact or law.

If your life is of normal length there is a very good chance that you, or some member of your immediate family, will be in a courtroom sometime in your life in a role other than that of a spectator or juror.

Application of the law is complicated. Rules of procedure are complex. The average citizen feels awed, perhaps even helpless in a courtroom. The atmosphere in the courtroom is subdued, respectful, and anticipatory - not unlike being in church. To be a principal participant in a court case is a sobering experience.

Every citizen should go to court as a spectator to observe the operation of this system from which you may some day need to seek justice. It will make you more sensitive and perhaps wiser as you vote to elect persons whose integrity and knowledge are so essential to making justice the normative product of a trial. Spending some time in court may tend to make you sympathetic with the woes of those who are caught in the "toils of the law". It will help you understand why every citizen should be willing to serve on a jury when called rather than working to find ways to avoid it.

Let me describe some of what you will feel and see in a criminal courtroom.

Conflicting feelings tug from every side. The defendant sits awkwardly at the large oak table set aside for the defense, and depending upon the individual's response to stress, he or she may appear self-defeated, arrogant, detached, or even bored. Family and friends of the defendant sit behind the defendant, struggling between embarrassment and loyalty. Lawyers shuffle papers, make notes, wave at friends, consult with associates, reassure clients and witnesses and generally look calm. The balliff barks, "All rise!" and the courtroom goes quiet and everyone stands. The judge comes to the bench looking at everyone without seeing anyone in particular. The judge does not acknowledge friends and acquaintances, and understands the importance of exhibiting impartiality without indifference and authority without arrogance. Spectators whisper "knowing" observations about procedure to the uninitiated. All eyes focus on the bench where the heaviest responsibility of all rests on the shoulders of the one solitary person who is in charge of the search for justice. If when you address this person you cannot say "your honor" sincerely, then we are all in trouble.

The courtroom is a drama of human trauma. It is the mechanism which we pray will produce justice. Someday, by some unexpected turn of events, you may be an active participant in such drama. It is very important to know that good and honorable people are in charge of the procedure by which justice is mediated.

The courtroom is a very important place in our democratic system. Many people have had to bet their life on it. It is possible that you some day, for some reason, may have to trust that system for justice.