The Big Fat Greek Verdict

John J. Hopkins Jan. 15, 2006, 7:00am

One of the biggest hits in the summer of 2001 was a small, independently produced film with a strange and very personal title--"My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

The movie was a true cross-over comedy, essentially a very cute "chick flick" that appealed to the male audience. Fueled by word-of-mouth advertising, this Cinderella story with an ethnic twist became a surprise hit.

While the main story deals with the transformation of Toula Portokakolis--from a painfully shy and unadorned 30-year-old single living at home and working in the family restaurant--into the Greek butterfly spreading her wings and moving on with her WASP teacher husband, for me the most interesting character was Toula's father, Gus.

Wonderfully played by veteran character actor Michael Constantine, Gus is a man of simple but strong values. He wants his restaurant, "Dancing Zorba's," to be a success, but sees no reason to change the menu after 30 years.

He wants his family to respect him and share in his love of their Greek heritage--to the point of asserting at every possible moment the Greek origin of everything from Kimonos to Jell-O. But most of all, he wants his little girl to find a nice Greek boy and to start making big, fat Greek babies.

Alas, the father's dream is shattered when Toula falls for and announces her intentions to marry a very much white bread non-Greek, "Eon Meelar." Gus is outraged, and initially denies permission, but eventually realizes that this is a problem that not even his handy Windex can solve, relents and welcomes the nuptials with a gift of a house right next door to his.

I have been thinking a lot about Gus--he of the strong will but good heart, who sometimes says or does the wrong thing, but always has the best of intentions.

I have been thinking about him in connection with the latest, and most anticipated decision from the Illinois Supreme Court, the saga of Price v. Philip Morris, aka, "Tillery's Big Tobacco Case."

The case is now all but over. Barring an unlikely intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, the verdict has been erased, leaving only its scar on the reputation of the legal system and the $10 million in interest payments to mark the passage of time.

Certainly in the history of the law in Madison County, "Price" is a seminal case, literally marking time before and after its coming.

Before Price, we were a small county northeast of St. Louis, and very, very much under the national media radar screen.

After Price, a plague of locusts seemed to descend upon Edwardsville, bringing with it the national spotlight, the label of "judicial hellhole," and wholesale condemnation by publications ranging from the liberal Post-Dispatch to the conservative Wall Street Journal, not to mention the birth of The Record, a publication that probably owes its existence to the Price case, and the negative after shocks.

But since Price was a case decided without a jury, the focus, fairly or unfairly, has been upon the Judge, Nicholas Byron. Like Gus Portakokalis, Judge Byron is fiercely proud of his Greek heritage, and yearns only to do what he perceives to be the right thing. While the methods and results of both men can and have been criticized, the motivations and sincerity of neither can be questioned.

With the hearings into the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court now underway, much is being written about "Judicial Activism," with most of it being negative. But such simple condemnation fails to account for the human element, with personal life experiences and philosophies which shape legal reasoning even in a perfect world.

Judge Byron brought such an analysis to what he determined was a major problem with the marketing and sale of cigarettes, a deception deeply rooted in a corporate mentality of greed and arrogance. He then set out to do something about it.

While his decision was flawed and deserved to be reversed, Judge Byron did not deserve the avalanche of personal attacks. He did not deserve to be called "Chuckles" by Bill McClellan of the Post-Dispatch.

He did not deserve to be made sport of in the Wall Street Journal, nor his actions be the rallying point for a phony and defamatory attack on the judiciary, not just here but statewide.

Judge Byron is a man of great compassion, an emotion forged from his own at times difficult life experiences. It is through this filter that Price should be judged. He perceived a wrong to remedied, and took action. For that, he should applauded.

Theodore Roosevelt once spoke of the value of taking a chance for the sake of making a difference.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood...who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

For at least trying, albeit in vain, to Judge Byron we say, "Opah."

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