Inherit the Wind

John J. Hopkins Jan. 17, 2012, 6:56am


"He that shall trouble his own house, shall inherit the wind...."

The quote is from Proverbs, 11:29. It also of course serves as the title for the classic film featuring heavyweights Spencer Tracy and Frederick March, playing the fictionalized roles of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. It is based on the evolution trial of the 1920s and has always been my choice for the best lawyer movie of all time.

In the film, Matthew Harrison Brady - the Bryan character - admonishes the Rev. Brown after the town preacher gives a fiery speech condemning not only those who would defiantly teach the banned Darwin doctrine, but those who would aid and abet them as well, including his own daughter Rachel. Brady acknowledges the fervor of the cause, but calms the scene by reminding the Reverend that actions taken in haste and without discretion can result in the loss of the very thing that we hope to save - a thought worth remembering here in Madison County.

Judge Barbara Crowder is a well respected member of the circuit bench. She has served with distinction and compassion in her term of the last five years, following a career as first a lawyer of note and then an associate judge. Her husband Larry Taliana is former president of the Madison County Bar Association, and a distinguished attorney in his own right. These simple facts seemed to have been lost in the recent controversy that has surrounded them both.

Mistakes can be made in isolation. Mistakes can also be made as part of a cluster, feeding off each other and growing stronger. Problems then compound, resulting in disastrous yet regrettably avoidable consequences. As widely reported, the Crowder retention campaign received sizable donations from asbestos firms in Madison County. At the time, she presided over the asbestos docket. Shortly before the donations, these firms who have the majority of the cases filed, received a majority of the trial settings for the up coming term. No law was broken. Nothing done here had not been done hundreds of times before. Yet this time, a firestorm was ignited that threatens to bring down the house.

The campaign donations were promptly and publicly reported, as per the disclosure laws. Such information is normally only of interest to political junkies and the muckraking publications that feed off of them. But not this time. Even though no one suggests -
much less can prove, a Blagojevich - like " pay for play" arrangement, the reaction was swift and furious. Crowder was removed as asbestos judge, transferred to the Chancery Docket in what can only be seen as a demotion.

Partisan and uninformed calls rang out for her resignation.
Worst of all, in a move prompted by election year panic, a request for an investigation by the Judicial Inquiry Board. Mistake after mistake. Blunder after blunder. Turning what should have been at most a three-day story into what just may prove to be the issue of the elections this Fall.

It is an admitted mistake for the campaign to solicit and then the lawyers to send campaign donations so close in time to the docket settings. Again, no one suggests that the donors received anything other than their fair share, but in the end, perception trumps reality.

The decision by the Chief Judge in re-assigning Crowder so quickly after the donations became public can only be seen as a punitive measure even though no wrongdoing occurred. Chief Judge Callis' desire has always been to make our circuit the best, and for the most part, she has succeeded. But in this instance, the cure far outweighed the disease. By taking swift public action in essentially demoting an elected circuit judge instead of a more measured private response, an image is created of violations having been committed. A perilous position to postulate, as all circuit judges receive campaign contributions from lawyers, many of whom regularly appear before them. The ability to separate the two is presumed until clearly shown otherwise. It is the nature of the process created by statute, not invented by the Crowder campaign. It is unfair to scapegoat them for a flaw in the system, real or imagined.

The final and certainly biggest mistake was committed by an individual with seemingly no direct connection to the court system. County Board Chairman Dunstan's call for the scrutiny of a state investigation was unwise at best and a baby-out-with-the-bath water move, at worst. No rational argument can support such a rash and foolish action. His legacy may well be a wholesale shake up of all three branches of county government.

For those of us working lawyers still trying to make enough of a living to allow us to spoil a newly born granddaughter, such actions poison the well of justice. If the public thinks one judge is corrupt - and how can they not with such a request - they easily believe they all are, and the lawyers as well. Fair trials for the victims of corporate greed or medical neglect will now be much harder to obtain.

The contamination will not be contained. It will spread to all of the elected officials who have regularly supped from the money trough laid out by lawyers. An appeal to voters to clean house will fall upon fertile ground this Fall, leaving in its wake a sea change of unprecedented proportions.

The only salvage of redemption can be for my old friend Dunstan to admit that his call was a mistake, nothing was in fact irregular and fall on his sword in contrition. But this is not likely to happen and the dye may very well have been cast. Republicans sense Democratic blood in the water. It is from a self inflicted wound.

The present remains turbulent, the past a smoky memory. We can all but move in unison to an uncertain future in which we can only hope for the wisdom of the truth. Be not afraid.

More News