Judge Larsen: Courage Under Fire

John J. Hopkins Nov. 17, 2007, 3:00am

Meg Ryan stars in the Persian Gulf War I saga, "Courage Under Fire," the story of the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor. It is simply a great movie, with outstanding work by Denzel Washington as an Army Colonel assigned the task of investigating the facts surrounding the incident.

It has a morale - to thine own self be true - together with stellar performances in support by Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips and serves as today's movie metaphor, for the title if nothing else.

While courage can come in many shapes and forms, on the battlefield or in the affairs of daily living, it is all too rare a commodity.

As has been suggested many times before, in the political arena, it is often times non-existent. But if the appalling lack of real fortitude deserves to be chastised, it seems only fitting and proper to praise evidence of true courage whenever and wherever it appears. Such is only the fair thing to do.

In August of 2005, in a shameful act of panic and fear, the Illinois General Assembly, ignoring the reliable data on hand, capitulated to the power and influence of the medical insurance lobby, and took away the rights of Illinois citizens to properly seek redress through the courts of law.

Disguised in the sheep's clothing of the only solution to the exaggerated exodus of Illinois physicians, Public Act 94-677 imposed completely arbitrary caps on the amount of damages recoverable from doctors or hospitals found to be responsible for patient injuries or death.

In the House of Justice, society's great equalizer, certain groups were given preferential treatment all to the detriment of their fellow citizens. It was an indefensible retreat from reality.

As are all laws of the state, the caps legislation was subject to the review of the courts, to determine whether or not such legislation, be it well intended or vindictive, pass the muster of the State Constitution.

The winds of fearful political consequences notwithstanding,in an act of true courage, Cook County Judge Diane Larsen struck down the damage caps, finding they violate both the separation of powers provision as an impermissible infringement on the judicial process, as well as seeing the law for what is always was, an unabashed attempt to give even more special indemnities under the law to an already overly privileged class.

Such "Special Legislation," granting powers to one particular group and not all who so appear before the bench, almost always fails. It took the courts to correct a legislative mistake born out of fear, panic and a desire to curry favor with the loudest special interest group.

This is proper role of the courts, to be a voice of quiet reason in a sea of hysteria, to be the force that determines not whether laws are popular, but are they proper.

The debate on the matter will continue, with the case now sent directly to the Illinois Supreme Court, a body which has twice in the past struck down similar attempts at stacking the deck. No doubt they will do so a third time.

But such an analysis misses the beauty confirmed in the strength of our system of checks and balance, one in which the temporary desires of the people, driven many times by the manipulation of primal fears by opportunistic charlatans and reflected in ill conceived legislation, must be judged against the bedrock of Constitutional principles. It is the highest and best use for the Courts, one in which perception does not become reality, but rather only the law is reality.

On the subject of courage and the law, a moment of recognition to two stellar members of the profession who passed away last week.

Judge Joseph Barr of Wood River died at age 88 after a long career of humble service to his fellow man. Decorated Marine war hero from the Pacific theater in World War II, Judge Barr was truly a gentleman, in every sense of the word, always with a kind inquiry for all the lawyers who appeared before him, and like with yours truly, always very helpful and encouraging to the young litigator.

Although long retired, he regularly attended the functions of the Bar, in particular the annual Memorial service in May. He had obvious courage under fire, as his Navy Cross and Purple Hearts attest, but in civilian life, he carried forth with the courage of his convictions, to rule as he saw best, his conservative Irish bent oft times upsetting the Madison County plaintiffs bar, to living his life as a true example of Christian man of the law, unsullied by the dust that so many times envelopes our profession.

His job well done, his soul at peace, may he now be reaping his just due reward.

Last week also marked the death of William Schooley of Granite City. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that all I know about being a good lawyer, I learned from Bill Schooley.

His sense of undivided loyalty to client, the irreplaceable ethic of hard work, and the role of the advocate for the working man, forged at West Point and developed through his apprenticeship with George Moran and Bill Beatty, was passed along to all of the Schooley firm alums, of which I am only one proud part.

Korean War vet, past president of the Madison County Bar Association, Bill Schooley never retired, staying to the end what he always was, a working lawyer. While we certainly walked different paths through the years, I was always most grateful for the chances he gave to this young attorney, some 30 plus years ago.

In his personal life, Bill Schooley some times walked a hard road, but it never hampered his aggressive and ethical representation of his clients. With his death, may my old boss find the peace that though his life so often times seemed to allude him.

Good night, Mr. Schooley.

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