The Power of Civility—Even in the Courtroom, its Time has Come

As we celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year, I saw hopeful signs that we may all get along one day. My optimism actually started before the year-end holidays when the subject of civility in our nation’s courtrooms came up at a memorial for a distinguished trial lawyer who had been a treasured family friend, Larry Barcella was a famous terrorism prosecutor in the 1970s and 1980s and then an equally passionate white-collar defense lawyer – not exactly an arena known for collegiality. But after his death from cancer, his partners at the law firm of Paul Hastings wanted to find a way to honor Larry’s respect for his colleagues and his adversaries on both sides of the courtroom throughout his career.

As a result, Paul Hastings chairman Seth Zachary announced that the firm is planning to partner with the American Bar Association to establish a fund in Barcella’s name to foster collegiality in the courtroom. Barcella believed vitriol between prosecutors and defense lawyers was unnecessary and counterproductive,  Zachary said at the memorial ceremony at the E. Barrett Pettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington DC.

Now if there’s a serious effort afoot to make the halls of justice more civil, why can’t our legislators get the point? I grew more hopeful in watching the coverage of the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson last week when President Obama appealed to the nation to remember the dreams of our children, as represented by the youngest victim, 9 year old Christina Taylor Green, who wanted to go into public service and was born on 9-11-2001. The audience was in tears.

Later that day, a moving interview with New York state senator Kirsten Gillibrand revealed the miraculous moment when she was holding the hand of gunshot victim U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and she first opened her eyes. Giffords, a centrist Democrat who urged civil discourse among her colleagues, is now off life support and her chances for survival are assured, despite being shot point blank in the head by a determined killer.  When her many friends, her husband NASA astronaut Mark E. Kelly and even her doctor went on television to talk about her recovery, they also talked in terms of “miracles.”  I consider it the miraculous power of friendship, love and a steel will at work against the forces of anger and hate spewed out by the troubled gunman.

I often hear that today’s tumultuous discourse is very reminiscent of the ‘60s, when violence in reaction to civil rights produced a great leader in Martin Luther King. He urged his followers to respond to the vicious attacks of that era with non-violence and quiet determination. The battle for equal rights was eventually won. May the legacy of professionals like Larry Barcella now rule the day with their message of civil discourse as we face the challenges of getting along in the global community.

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