Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The lawful responsibility of time

Adapted from the September 2007 issue of "Louisville Bar Briefs," the monthly newspaper of the Louisville Bar Association.

Robert Penn Warren
Will Wilson, Robert Penn Warren (2005)
Who is Kentucky's greatest writer? Though Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bobbie Ann Mason all have their fans, I nominate Robert Penn Warren.

Born in Guthrie, Warren achieved fame as a Fugitive and an Agrarian, as editor of The Southern Review, and as the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Had he accomplished nothing as a poet or a critic, though, Warren would still figure prominently in American literature for a single novel: All the King's Men.

All the King's MenThis column discusses All the King's Men and how it informs legal education. It is, after all, a hotly contested electoral season in Kentucky, and no book has ever depicted Southern politics more vividly. Besides, classes have started at Louisville Law, and it is my happy duty to remind students and faculty alike that they may -- indeed, should -- read novels and poems alongside cases and statutes.

At a pivotal point in All the King's Men, narrator Jack Burden stumbles upon the profound truth "that the world is all of one piece":
Spider web[T]he world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping.
It is a truth that Jack Burden refuses to embrace until death, bloodshed, and "the awful responsibility of Time" force his hand. Lives are destroyed before Jack renounces the nihilistic Great Twitch, his name for his refusal to believe that intentions and actions matter. Such obstinance arguably befits a character who deliberately flunks out of law school and eventually makes his living as the governor's master of scandal and corruption. Those of us who finished legal training know better. We can do better.

Spider Web IIThe law is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter. Nothing worth doing, no problem worth solving lies more than a single step removed from law. History is blind, but law is not. Jack Burden does eventually learn how makers and enforcers of the law, made whole by knowledge of interdependence and mutual responsibility among all people, might yet fulfill the promise made in Dante's Purgatorio: Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde. No fault lies beyond redemption, as long as hope keeps even a hint of green.

We lawyers should be so humble and wise. Our Law School's graduates, in the beautiful diversity of their lives, work actively in law, government, business, and education to connect those in need with those empowered to serve, to satisfy, to heal. As another Southern author of Warren's time might have said, our graduates tackle the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, the only challenges worth the agony and the sweat.

The interwoven nature of law and society at large motivates the University of Louisville's approach to legal education. We put ideas to action. A keen awareness of law's connectedness drives us to become national, even global, leaders in applying legal insights to real-world social issues. We are committed to opening the University of Louisville Law Clinic by next fall. The Clinic represents the logical extension of Louisville Law's pioneering efforts in public service and the teaching of legal professionalism alongside ethics and skills.

Legal connectionsConnectedness also explains why the University of Louisville Law Review will devote its first on-campus symposium to the recent Supreme Court decision in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education and the ongoing challenges of public school desegregation. Connectedness explains the Law School's commitment to an annual Conference on Law, Ethics, and the Life Sciences. Por esta razón enseñaremos español en nuestra faculdad de derecho, para ayudar a nuestros estudiantes a servir mejor toda la población de nuestro país. Entonces, tenemos que atraversar todas fronteras, no solamenta en la tierra, pero también entre los corazones de la humanidad.

Most of all, we are devoted to making personal history. For every student has a story. Each individual path through legal education, to paraphrase Warren, is the story of a student who lives in the world. To him or to her, the world once looked one way for a long time. And then it will look another and very different way, an utterly interconnected and interdependent way. That change will not happen all at once. It will happen over the course of the hundreds of days that comprise the law school experience.

Willie StarkThis is what Louisville Law can learn from Kentucky's greatest writer and his greatest novel. An inspiring vision of legal education flows quite naturally from a fictional narrative that begins with a quest for human venality and the manipulation of personal vulnerability. "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption," proclaims Governor Wille Stark, "and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Jack Burden learns eventually to preach a different gospel. At its very best, our Law School sends students into "the convulsion of the world," fully aware of the interconnected world and of the lawful responsibility of time.


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