When some lawyers think about “Art and the Law,” their minds will naturally wander to the issues that cause headaches for artists and patrons, fans and critics, sellers and collectors. And, why not? History is full of controversies in this area, large and small, that test the boundaries of critical thinking. Other lawyers will think of the ways in which they aspire to evolve from a mere practitioner of the law to a true artist of the craft. (Anyone want to borrow my copy of Francis Wellman’s The Art of Cross Examination?)
But, not me. When I think about this topic, I think about the way our profession is represented in various art forms. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has visited my office at any time in the last twenty years. From a sophisticated abstract piece struggling to show the delicate line between actus reus and mens rea to an unsophisticated print of two sharks swimming as they “approach the bench,” I have been a consumer of a wide variety (and quality) of legal art. And, while my tastes in this area are broad and extend from the canvas and the page to the screen and the stage, my favorite subject is the treatment of our adversarial system in pop culture. Old or new, drama or comedy, realistic or stylized, it makes no difference – I am literally surrounded by images of lawyers as depicted on film in movies and on television. On my best days, I look up to my poster of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” or down to my pewter die cast model of Clarence Darrow arguing in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” On my worst, I comfort myself with the realization that at least I am not Saul Goodman or Lionel Hutz. I have learned a lot from fake lawyers. While it is obviously important to be well trained in statutes and precedents, is it wrong that I look to the likes of Jimmy Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder” or Leo McKern in “Rumpole of the Bailey” for guidance from time to time?
I have always wanted to be an attorney. When I stop to think about why, I realize it is because of the lawyer movies and television shows of my youth. Those advocates sat on all sides of the moral compass, but I loved them because they gave me drama, action, and suspense. They also taught me what it was to be human, to fight against the odds, and to stick up for what is right. Today, those same stories, and countless new ones, remind me of the collective good that we can accomplish. Maybe we can all learn something from fake lawyers.
Given the role that art and the law has played in shaping my professional life, I feel lucky that my first opportunity to communicate with you comes in this issue of the Riverside Lawyer. As I struggled to prepare my message to you, Charlene Nelson (our Executive Director and the engine that keeps us all going) shared with me some of the “firsts” from our past presidents. Reading more than twenty years of columns from some of my heroes, mentors, and friends was humbling. It also reminded me that the challenges we face are not new. But, in looking at columns from the likes of Aurora Hughes, Steve Harmon, and David Bristow, as well as the presidents with whom I had the opportunity to serve like Robyn Lewis, Judge Harmon, Judge Firetag, and Judge Klatchko, I am comforted by the fact that we, the members of this association, remain the best hope to solve those challenges. The common theme discerned from this unique reading list was that we play a critical role in the communities we serve and that the future success of those communities stems from our acceptance of that responsibility.
As we start a new program year with our Bar Association, please look for opportunities to celebrate the past contributions of our profession to the greater good. For example, on Monday, September 17, from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, the Riverside Metropolitan Museum will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the landmark Harada House case. This event will take place at the actual Harada House, located at 3356 Lemon Street in Downtown Riverside. This National Historic Landmark commemorates the battle to allow children of immigrants to buy property and is a constant physical reminder of what we can accomplish.
Additionally, please seek out ways in which you can make the world a better place. Feel free to share those opportunities with all of us. I will commit to share them with you. Maybe a year from now, we will all have learned a lot from some real lawyers.
Jeff Van Wagenen is the Assistant County Executive Officer for Public Safety, working with, among others, the District Attorney’s Office, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, and the Courts.