September 11, 2001. November 22, 1963. December 7, 1941. Americans of all ages remember where they were, what they were doing, when they first became aware of monstrous acts of murder and war. In an instant, everything changed. With a thunderclap -- the whine of jet engines, a rifle shot, and the screams of the doomed -- the nation loses its innocence yet again.
But not every momentous paradigm shift is announced by the thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Other events, more subtle, have changed the way we live. Profound, tectonic shifts in America's cultural, social, and legal landscape have taken place far removed in time and space from the glare of the media, experienced by a relative few who witnessed history being made. And, like a pebble tossed in a pond, these seemingly insignificant events -- writ small upon a canvas larger than any could then imagine -- send ripples out in ever-increasing circles, affecting us in ways impossible to foretell.
A woman walks into a voting booth, casts her ballot, and is arrested by the police for the crime of voting. An anguished family asks a doctor to let their daughter die with dignity, only to be told the law won't allow it, the patient's wishes be damned. State doctors decide a young woman they deem of below-average intelligence must not be allowed to pass her defective intellect on to her children and order her forcibly sterilized.
Years later, another woman casts her ballot without giving it a second thought and a man sits with his wife and signs a Do Not Resuscitate order before his operation. Every day millions of Americans enjoy the freedom to decide what they shall do with their property, their body, their speech, their vote, as a result of hard-fought battles won or lost over the last 150 years in courtrooms from Maine to California.
When our society has attempted to untangle the Gordian knots of slavery or the right to die, the political process has often proved unable or unwilling to address these complex issues. Stepping into the breech were the men and women of the bar. When legislators will not or cannot legislate, Americans have turned to the judicial system. And so lawyers and judges have often been the first to tackle some of the most vexatious dilemmas to confront this nation. With twenty-twenty hindsight, we can say that sometimes they got it right (freeing the Amistad slaves), and sometimes they got it wrong (sterilizing Carrie Buck). But, again with hindsight, we know that these trials have helped bring us closer to resolving profound and complex problems that have faced the American people.
The process has not changed over time. In the courtroom, the fundamentals of our democratic heritage and our future come together. It begins like this: The testimony is done; the witnesses have left. While the jurors sit waiting, an expectant hush falls over the room. The trial lawyer strides into the well and stands before them, pauses, then begins speaking. The jurors listen to the skillful interweaving of testimony, facts, storytelling, and analogy, some swept up in the words and rhythms of the advocate's argument, some taking notes, others just watching.
The argument reaches a climax as the attorney asks, sometimes demands, that the jurors do the right thing. Then they retire to mull over all that they've seen and heard. And when they return to the courtroom, the judge asks, "Have you reached a verdict?" The foreperson stands and answers, "We have, Your Honor."
Tension mounts. "What say you in the matter before this court?" As the answer echoes throughout the courtroom, the lives of all Americans are affected.
We have collected summations from trials that have, without overstating the case, changed the way we live our lives. The arguments we have chosen for this book deal with issues that have defined our civil rights. Selected for the impact they have had upon American society, these represent the finest work of lawyers still famous and others now little known to the modern reader.
We've edited many of the arguments for length. Our experiences in the courtroom have shown us that lawyers often go into fact-specific detail -- necessary perhaps for the jurors, but adding nothing to the reader's understanding and enjoyment. Wielding as delicate a knife as possible, we've excised those portions, leaving behind these marvelous summations. And, of course, nothing has been added.
Until now, only the twelve jurors sitting in the box or the nine justices of the Supreme Court sitting on the bench have felt the full power of those words aimed at their hearts and minds. But now you can be in the courtroom, listen to some of the most important battles of all time, and ask, "What would I have done? How would I have voted?"
Copyright © 2004 by Michael S Lief and H. Mitchell Caldwell