The Right Coast

February 04, 2006
Atticus Finch
By Tom Smith

Here is an interesting post at Powerline about Harper Lee and Atticus Finch.

Atticus Finch is indeed a person many of us think of when we think of the good lawyer. A person I think I can compare him to pretty fairly is my father, Walter E. Smith, who is now a retired state court trial judge in Boise, Idaho. I plan to write more about my dad at some point, but as I get older, I realize more what a special kind of lawyer he was. That all four of us kids became lawyers, one a litigator, one a prosecutor, one a federal judge and one a law professor (which arguably counts) says something, I suppose. He was a public servant during what were turbulent times in smallish cities across America. There was the civil rights movement, for one. As a moderate Republican (I suppose you could call him), he had to take sides in the whole debate over civil rights for African Americans. It was that kind of time. Lots of people in public life just had to take sides. He chose the pro-civil rights side, and marched with the not very numerous Blacks of Boise, Idaho, stood on the courthouse steps, and sang "We Shall Overcome." In the early 'sixties in Boise, that took some stones. He became one of the targets of the crazed right. This was before the great purge of the Conservative movement in America led by Bill Buckley, and if you supported civil rights, you were a communist or worse.

Before he became a trial judge, my father was a juvenile court judge (and before that he had practiced corporate law for a large department store company, which he did not like much). In the course of a decade, he was more responsible than anyone else for reforming Idaho's juvenile justice system, which in the 1950's was like something out of a Hollywood B horror movie, and turning it into a modern system. He was (and still is) fearless in a quiet sort of way, quite Atticus Finch like in that respect. Appropriately enough, one of his political enemies was the jackbooted local sheriff, whose aspirations for higher office fortunately never went far. When a new juvenile justice facility finally got built in Boise, the people behind it wanted to name it after my father. Characteristically, he declined, saying "I don't want my name on any damn jail."

I think there are a lot of good lawyers like my father out there, who have inspired others to go into law. Not to make money, or even to make a name for themselves, but because they want something that is hard to put into words, but is like, seeing justice gets done. As a law professor, I suppose I have opted for (what I see as) the good life, but when I think what a lawyer really should be, I too think of Atticus Finch, but before that, of my dad.