Published in The Newstimes June 12, 2015
It has been one year (May 23rd) since a deadly rampage shooting near the University of California/Santa Barbara left six innocent college students dead. If it seems like we are routinely marking annual remembrances of rampages it is because we are. Mass shootings at schools and other places occur with startling frequency. Graduating law school students at the University of Arizona College of Law were given a harsh reminder of that reality last week at the commencement ceremony at the McKale Arena. Last week (May 16th) former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords joined her retired astronaut husband, Mark Kelly on stage to address the nearly 180 law school graduates. I was one of them, having returned to school to pursue graduate legal studies; I was one three students at the ceremony awarded a doctoral degree. Heroes are hard to come by these days, and Giffords is one of them. On January 5, 2012 the Congresswoman appeared at an outdoor public constituent event where she was shot in the head at point blank range. The horrific rampage left 6 innocent victims dead and Giffords with a severe brain injury. She soon left her congressional seat for a grueling recovery. Gifford’s appearance at the graduation was of startling relevance and irony to my return-to-school, as my doctoral dissertation is about the aftermath of rampage shootings and cultural reactions to them. Rather than fade into oblivion or the comforts of private life and recovery she continues to appear in public; her appearances must present many physical, mental and logistical challenges. In her brief comments, Giffords challenged the new lawyers to be “bold and courageous.” Her mere appearance on stage is a profile in courage.
Courage, indeed, will be required for the new lawyers. The practice of law has never been an easy endeavor. It is not for the faint of heart or the meek. It can be a grueling way to make a living. In the current economic climate, as the practice undergoes a transformative period, boldness, creativity and ingenuity will be on the agenda. While Gifford’s ordeal and her approach to life after the tragedy is a more easily understood brand of courage, a form of it may well confront the young lawyers. Lawyers are often asked to take on unpopular causes. For that they sometimes receive a dose of public scorn—even death threats. Think of what it was like for Judy Clark to represent Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the recent Boston Marathon mass murder trial. A measure of courage is needed to aggressively and zealously represent unpopular clients like Tsarnaev. Clark is literally fighting for her client’s life. Much of the population would like to see him executed. Criminal lawyers are not the only ones confronting the prospect of public scorn. A recent New York Times report concluded that large law firms with lawyers highly skilled at appearing before the Supreme Court are now reluctant to accept clients where the lawyers will have to argue before the Court against the constitutionality of gay marriage. Yet the American system of justice is an adversarial system and it works best when both sides are represented by skilled advocates. During a recent law lecture one of my students asked if lawyers must accept unpopular clients. For lawyers in private practice there is discretion in deciding which cases to take. In fact deciding which cases to take and which to pass on is one of the hardest tasks for lawyers to learn. As I told the student, though, for a criminal defense lawyer, if the criteria are the unpopularity of the client or the particular heinous nature of the offense, rejecting paying clients is a sure road to bankruptcy. After the rampage last year in Santa Barbara a remarkable thing happened. Two fathers met privately, Peter Rodger, the father of the rampager and Richard Martinez, the father of one of the rampage victims. That meeting took courage for both men. Meetings like the California one are beginning to occur in rampage cases; the father of Newtown, Connecticut rampager Adam Lanza also met with parents of his son’s tragic murders. While I don’t know how Giffords feels about such post-tragedy family meetings, if managed carefully they produce no harm and much potential good. Direct communications begin a dialogue. Unanswered questions get answered. The dialogue makes possible understanding, confession, potential reconciliation and forgiveness. And while it requires a dose of courage for both sides, there’s a good chance it’s an RX to jumpstart long-term healing.