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VOL. 8 | NO. 18 | Saturday, April 25, 2015

Memphis & The Law

Local legal tradition and culture continue to change

By Bill Dries

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Before there was Law Week, there was Law Day.

Law Week observances in Memphis have changed over the years, but many have included a luncheon such as this one from 1975 that featured civic leaders of the day, including then-Memphis Police Director Jay Hubbard and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Joe Henry.

The observance by the Memphis Bar Association as well as bar associations and attorneys across the country was created in the mid-1950s as a way of promoting the legal community and its impact.

“Law Week is really intended to highlight the role of the judicial system in the larger community and to remind the community about the importance of the rule of law in daily society,” said Thomas L. Parker, Memphis Bar Association president.

Along the way, observances have reflected the issues of the times and of a community.

And the events have changed.

There once was a Law Day parade in the 1970s followed by a Law Day luncheon. The event’s speeches served as a social barometer as well as an indication of issues specific to the legal community.

Memphis Police Director Jay Hubbard came to the Law Day Luncheon in 1975 to receive the Liberty Bell Award.

The luncheon was the day after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War; the images of Americans hurriedly evacuating the South Vietnamese capitol with North Vietnamese troops close behind was very much on Hubbard’s mind.

Hubbard was a Marine infantry veteran of World War II and a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam before his time as the city’s first police director. He forcefully told the group at the Memphis Cook Convention Center that he would volunteer to personally lead a bombing mission on North Vietnam.

Most speakers however stuck to issues of the law, including Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Joe Henry.

“America is the marriage of liberty with authority,” Henry said at the 1975 event. “Where individual freedom and liberty under law are eternally welded.”

In the prepared remarks, Henry also offered a definition of patriotism at the end of a war that had become divisive.

“In the context of our times, patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion,” he added. “But the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime to the principles upon which our nation was founded and by which it has achieved greatness.”

Law Week as a national observance began in 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that said racial segregation in education was unconstitutional.

Nine years later, in 1963, 300 members of the Memphis-Shelby County Bar Association voted not to admit African-American attorneys as members, with most members abstaining.

Another nine years later, in 1972, Elijah Noel Jr. returned to Memphis with his law degree and law license and began practicing law at the city’s first racially integrated law firm, Ratner, Sugarmon and Willis.

Noel, who today is on the bar association’s board of directors, worked on the federal court cases that integrated the county’s two public school systems as well as the discrimination case that opened up hiring practices at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

“Those lawsuits had significant effects on the fabric of our community,” he said. “That’s really how I cut my teeth as a young lawyer here in Memphis.”

Noel recalls once telling a judge early in his career that something wasn’t fair.

“The judge said, ‘We are not in the backyard somewhere. You can’t say, “It’s just not fair,”’” he recalled.

Changes in the Memphis legal community can be measured one Law Week observance to another. Law Week itself has evolved to reflect a more diverse industry and to face challenges in the changing nature of justice in America.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You’ve got to tie it to a rule of law, a rule of evidence, a rule of procedure or for that matter a rule of common sense,” Noel said. “But to just say it’s not fair, it’s not right – that doesn’t get you to where you want to be.”

Noel believes the role of the law in American society is hard to miss whether it’s a landmark ruling or attorneys who are better known for their opinions on television than their work in a courtroom.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1985 in a Memphis case surfaced in the last year in the discussions of incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and other places where citizens died violently at the hands of police officers.

The Garner case, as it is known, outlawed the policy used by Memphis police and other police forces across the country allowing officers to shoot a fleeing suspect. It stemmed from an incident in which a Memphis Police officer shot and killed a teenager who had allegedly broken into a house and was scaling a fence when he was shot in the back.

Memphis attorney and Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey argued the case before the Supreme Court. By the time of the court’s decision in 1985, the Memphis Police Department had dropped the “fleeing felon” policy as had most other police departments across the country.

A higher number of black elected officials partly prompted the policy change prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Among those was H.T. “Tony” Lockard, who was elected Criminal Court Judge in the mid-1980s. Lockard is remembered in a courthouse story that has endured for 50 years. As a black attorney in early-1960s Memphis, he had been jostled after taking a courtroom seat among white attorneys. He then told one of them that the next time he got pushed to the edge, one of the white attorneys would be sitting on the courthouse floor.

Modern Day Changes

The changes in the city’s legal community these days are along different lines, although there remains a racial dynamic to who runs for and who gets elected or appointed to the bench.

In the 2014 elections, that dynamic expressed itself in a wave of challengers to judicial incumbents. Those challengers built campaigns around a call for change in the criminal justice system, in particular versus incumbents who argued that their experience was the best way to guide the changes.

Parker is aware of the criticism by some that the justice system works too slowly.

“It’s probably slower than some would like. But in the end I think our justice system is still the best that humans have come up with. It’s remarkably strong here in Memphis, I think,” he said, pointing to the establishment of new general sessions courts that deal with specific types of offenses and defendants.

“I think you can look at the drug court, you can look at the veterans court,” Parker said. “Both of those have come due to a need. Judges and prosecutors and defense lawyers have recognized the need and tried to fill it.”

For attorney Bill Haltom, who was bar president in 2000, the incorporation of a naturalization ceremony as part of the Law Week activities is the best example of the legal system’s impact on everyday life. He calls it the “most meaningful thing I did” during his year as bar president.

“I’m not a shy person when it comes to public speaking,” Haltom said in recalling the naturalization ceremony he addressed in 2000. “That was the only time in my life where I had prepared remarks that I decided as I was sitting there not to use them. I was so blown away by the scene and by these people that were becoming citizens that day that I didn’t feel like I could do anything except thank them.”

Law Week in Memphis also includes an annual memorial service at Calvary Episcopal Church for those in the legal community who have died in the past year.

The service and reception at the landmark Downtown church is a recent tradition that replaced the legal community’s previous custom when an attorney or judge died.

“In the old days, whenever any lawyer passed away, there would be a program in his or her memory at the courthouse in one of the courtrooms,” Haltom recalled. “The family would gather. There would always be a judge who would preside and there would always be a court reporter who would transcribe the tributes that were made and the family would have a copy of it.”

Haltom described the community of attorneys, judges and others who work in the courts and at law firms as “close knit.”

“There’s always been a real connection between the bench and the bar,” he said. “I think it promotes the kind of civility that’s important to the legal system.”

Parker describes Memphis as an “oasis” for lawyers.

“The overwhelming majority of lawyers I run into treat each other in a civil, professional way,” he said. “There are outliers that still stick out frankly because of their behavior. But I think overall Memphis is still a great place to practice law. We treat each other in a civil way.”

Noel interacts with a lot of attorneys in his current duties as a delinquent tax attorney for Shelby County government.

He describes the interactions as “cordial” with a few attorneys who are “hyper.”

“Some lawyers might enjoy having a reputation as taking outlandish positons,” Noel said. “But still ultimately when that court day is over, lawyers can be friends with one another. I argue against friends all the time. It’s just part of the fabric of the practice of law.”

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