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VOL. 130 | NO. 81 | Monday, April 27, 2015

Memphis & The Law

Law Week evolves as views of justice change

By Bill Dries

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Over the long life of the city’s legal community, Court Square has been a place where attorneys and judges come together outside the courtroom and their law practices.

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. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

In many cases, it’s a chance encounter since no court has ever met in Court Square – despite its name and the intent of those who drew up the plan for Memphis nearly 200 years ago.

Court Square is also where the annual observance of Law Week has begun in recent years, including the 2015 launch party held Friday, April 24.

Before there was Law Week, there was Law Day.

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 on the public.

“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, president of the Memphis Bar Association.

Law Week 2015 coincides with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the English declaration of basic human rights and a legal system that remains the model for American juris prudence.

The document embodies the concept of freedom guaranteed by the rule of law, a concept that remains current and whose definition is controversial as well as subject to change in its detail.

Attorney Elijah Noel, who began practicing law in Memphis in 1972, recalls an early career moment in which he told a judge that something was just not fair.

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

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.

“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 added. “But to just say it’s not fair, it’s not right – that doesn’t get you to where you want to be.”

Noel returned to Memphis after law school, during a time of great change reflected in what was being argued in the city’s courtrooms.

At the city’s first racially integrated law firm, Ratner, Sugarmon, & Lucas, Noel 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 at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

“Those lawsuits had significant effects on the fabric of our community,” he said.

The changes in the city’s legal community these days are along different lines.

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,” Parker said, pointing to the establishment of 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 impact of the legal system on everyday life.

A swearing-in ceremony for hundreds of new naturalized U.S. citizens is Monday, April 27, at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. It is cosponsored by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

“I’m not a shy person when it comes to public speaking,” Haltom said, 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.”

The final Law Week event, a memorial service for those in the legal community who have died in the past year, will be held Tuesday, April 28, at noon at at Calvary Episcopal Church Downtown.

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