Big Fish

John J. Hopkins Aug. 16, 2008, 7:49am


A much overlooked gem of a movie is the Tim Burton directed "Big Fish." It deals with the death, and in retrospect, the life of Edward Bloom. With its setting in Alabama, it has elements of "Forest Gump" but more so with the tall tales told about the main character.

As his estranged son finds out, the tales were pretty much true, and his father really did cut that big a pathway through life. "Big Fish," for some obvious reasons set forth herein - why do lawyers always speak so stilted? - is today's movie metaphor.

A "Big Fish," one who swam his own distinct way, always on is own terms, was recently laid to rest.

George Moran, Sr., former Justice of the 5th District Appellate Court, died on July 31 at age 95. When the history of the legal practice in Madison County is finally written, while most of us will be lucky to be an occasional footnote, George Moran will be a whole chapter by himself.

He was an innovator, a singular force of nature, an entity unto his own. His biography as a trial lawyer, as a Justice on the Appeals court in Mt. Vernon, and finally as the liberal lion in winter, while well known, deserves comment in retrospect.

Justice Moran was born, raised and always returned to Granite City. His mother, the widow Moran, owned and operated a small grocery store in town, no doubt instilling at that time his life long passion for the underdog, those living on the margin of life.

He was a star athlete and obvious enough scholar to enroll in law school at George Washington, in D.C., graduating in 1937. His hometown practice was interrupted by his service in the Navy during World War II, where he saw plenty of action in the South Pacific onboard an LST.

He was among those honored by the Madison County Bar Association in November of 2006 for their heroic sacrifice. As a group, we were derelict in paying our veterans homage. In hindsight, we were none too soon in the honor, as two of the then living honorees have passed on since that day.

After the war, he returned to his practice, a general practice with an ever increasing emphasis on personal injury claims, representing plaintiffs. It was in this venue that he excelled.

His advocacy in the matter of Kennerley vs. Shell Oil breathed new life into a statute on the books since the turn of the century but languishing in the doldrums of legalese, giving its original intent revised purpose.

The Structural Work Act was a fine piece of social legislation, designed to protect the vulnerable on construction sites. In the 50 years since its passage, by the mid 1950s it had been gutted by exceptions and contradictions.

Attorney Moran convinced the Illinois Supreme Court that the conduct of the workman for whom the statute was enacted to protect, cannot be used by the defendants to escape liability.

Generations of both construction workers and the lawyers who represent them - I have stood in both groups - owed a debt of gratitude for this landmark case, a debt never paid, nor even frequently acknowledged.

Similarly, those laboring on the barges along and upon the inland waterways saw expanded protection of a federal law commonly known as the "Jones Act" to include their endeavors thanks to Attorney Moran's artful persuasion of the U.S. Supreme Court to decree that protection originally crafted for the high seas, should apply equally to the work on the river. Water is water; danger is danger.

His legacy established, George turned to the Bench, serving on the Court from 1964 to 1980. He continued to practice in various offices, always as cantankerous as ever, always as opinionated as ever, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but never in doubt.

The Moran family tradition of service to the profession continued in the second generation, with son George Jr. serving on the bench in Madison County, and daughter Kathleen in Clinton County. They are the proud legatees of a belief in the law as a proper instrument of social change.

At the end of the movie "Big Fish," Edward Bloom is laid to rest. His friends from throughout his life are shown gathering, and in the most animated fashion, are telling Bloom "stories."

After Justice Moran's wake, in keeping with a fine old tradition, lawyers met at a local spot to tell George stories...

"Remember when George and Paul Pratt were at the Bar meeting"...

"You see, in the old Court house in Granite City, there was a transom over the door to the jury deliberation room"...

"George and Morris Chapman, remember that one time when he pulled Morris' toupee off his head, they were going up to Chicago"...

These are the tales of the Big Fish, swimming in the little lake, one of the last of the true characters, a reputation for both legal skill and the lover of life, both well deserved.

May he truly now rest in peace, a lifetime of service to his fellow man now justifiably rewarded.

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