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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

In Court of Public Opinion, Lawyers Get a Bum Rap

April 15, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I was eager to catch Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy off by himself for a few minutes Tuesday when I went to hear his keynote speech at the new Whittier Law School's dedication ceremony in Costa Mesa.

Naturally, I was nervous about saying the wrong thing.

I remember how the Washington Redskin football player John Riggins got plastered at a banquet one night, looked through bloodshot eyes at Sandra Day O'Connor and said to our honorable Supreme Court justice, in front of everybody at her table, "Hey, lighten up, Sandy, baby."

(A pillar in our legal community, and she gets spoken to by this jughead as though she's Olivia Newton-John in "Grease.")

"How could you call her that?" I inquired of Riggins, a week or two later.

"What SHOULD I call her?" he asked back. "Ain't that her name?"

He had a point. It was a stupid point, but it was a point.

I would have addressed Justice Kennedy in a far more dignified manner. I almost certainly would have avoided calling him Tony Baby.

A friend asked, "What did you want to ask him?"

I said, "I wanted to ask how a law school affiliated with Whittier College, the alma mater of Richard Nixon, could send an invitation to a Kennedy."

*

Seriously, the new 15-acre, $21-million, ultra-modern Whittier Law School is a splendid addition to Orange County, and everyone connected with it has a right to be proud. The campus on Harbor Boulevard is the county's only institution of its kind accredited by the American Bar Assn., and--unlike some comedians--I say: The more lawyers, the better.

"Do we really NEED more lawyers?" Justice Kennedy himself asks, rhetorically.

He doesn't put it to a vote.

"The answer," he says, "is given us by history, and by the necessities of our own times. That answer is yes."

One of the justice's own sons recently became a lawyer.

(I am particularly impressed by the way Kennedy, his mother and all three of his children have distinguished themselves academically at Stanford, a basketball school.)

It was 40 years ago when Kennedy was a Phi Beta Kappa and received the first of his law degrees.

It was 25 years ago when, at the urging of Ronald Reagan, he submitted a California ballot initiative known as "Proposition 1," dedicated to tax limitation. It was defeated, but eventually inspired the more successful Prop. 13.

And it was 10 years ago when Kennedy--nominated by Reagan--was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Lewis Powell.

A lot has transpired since his time in law school.

"The definition of the 'golden age' of anything," Kennedy says, "is when you were there."

Invited to christen the new campus by John A. FitzRandolph, dean of Whittier's law school, Kennedy went him one better; he volunteered to teach a couple of classes in constitutional law, while he happened to be in the neighborhood.

Kennedy feels part of the challenge of studying law is watching it change.

For example, he says, consider a matter such as Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court "had to acknowledge a grievous error."

Kennedy was once accused by many of making a grievous error, after he cast the deciding vote that permitted Americans to burn a flag in protest.

As he later explained, judges sometimes must make decisions they don't like.

That's the law.

*

I can tell a lawyer joke with the best of them. Or a doctor joke. Or a banker joke. (What was that "Barbarians at the Gate" line, the one RJR Nabisco chief executive F. Ross Johnson uses? "All I want from bankers is a free calendar, and all I want from lawyers is that they're back in their coffins by morning.")

The truth is, though, I have no contempt of court; I have contempt of crooks. We seem to tell jokes about the wrong side.

"Lawyers are on the front line in the battle for justice," Kennedy says to Whittier's attorneys of tomorrow, "and they must never forget it."

I never got a chance to ask him what Nixon would have thought of having a Kennedy holding court at Whittier this way.

But I'm sure it would have been OK. Ain't that his name?

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